Were Prehistoric Dogs the Key to Early Humans’ Survival?

A new study suggests a strong relationship with canines helped our ancestors thrive. Man's best friend? Case closed.


We might have more to thank our dogs for than just friendship and walks in the park.

Two species with highly advanced capabilities — that is, compared to other animals — lived in Europe and the Middle East between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago. One of these species was the Neanderthals. The other was the species paleoanthropologists call “modern humans” — and which were anatomically identical to us.

Why did our direct ancestors survive and thrive while the Neanderthals, who arrived in those regions first and had remarkably big heads, died out?

A newly released study set to be published in the July issue of the journal Science examined 164 archaeological sites throughout southwestern France that date back to the period when Neanderthals and modern humans overlapped. Based on this study and his own analyses of excavations involving fossilized canid bones, anthropologist Pat Shipman has proposed a startling new theory: Modern humans, Shipman suggests, succeeded because of their close bond with dogs.

“Domesticating dogs clearly improves humans’ hunting success and efficiency. … If Neanderthals did not have domestic dogs and anatomically modern humans did, these hunting companions could have made all the difference in the modern human–Neanderthal competition,” Shipman writes in American Scientist. His theory is further explained in The Atlantic:

“The affinity between humans and dogs manifested itself mainly in the way that it would go on to do for many more thousands of years: in the hunt. Dogs would help humans to identify their prey; but they would also work, the theory goes, as beasts of burden — playing the same role for early humans as they played for the Blackfeet and Hidatsa [tribes] of the American West, who bred large, strong dogs specifically for hauling strapped-on packs. (Paleolithic dogs were big to begin with: They had, their skeletons suggest, a body mass of at least 70 pounds and a shoulder height of at least 2 feet — which would make them, at minimum, the size of a modern-day German Shepherd.)

“Since transporting animal carcasses is an energy-intensive task, getting dogs to do that work would mean that humans could concentrate their energy on more productive endeavors: hunting, gathering, reproducing.”

Shipman also cites recent studies confirming what we already knew: that dogs are highly responsive to the facial expressions of their human companions. “Humans love to look into their dogs’ eyes to ‘read’ their emotions. Dogs apparently feel the same. Maybe — just maybe — this reciprocal communication was instrumental in the survival of our species.”

Think of that the next time you scoop poop.

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