The publication today of some significant genetic research suggesting dog adaptation to eating starchy foods is a good excuse to expand on last week’s post on the evolutionary relationship between humans and mammals. More than the horse, the dog has the longest and strongest relationship with humans, born out by fossil evidence which might put the origins of dog domestication possibly as early as 33k BP.
Aside from the implication for palaeodieters (if dogs have adapted to eating plant-derived starches isn’t it highly likely we have too?), the coverage caught my eye for further discussion of the mechanism for early overlap between humans and dogs which led to domestication. The argument goes that as humans started to develop more stable and intensely used habitation sites, peripheral accumulations of food debris would have attracted wolves, which became over time habituated to humans and opened up a context for domestication. It’s a neat, passive explanation that fits our perception of the wild being at the margins of our “domesticated” social place and bleeding into it. I’m also interested in the explanation as it sets a human behavioral construct, The Rubbish Dump, at the center of a process of social interaction, self organisation and genetic change. In this sense it fits very well with my perspective of human behavioral signatures as being drivers of evolutionary change in terms of niche construction/allogenic engineering.
I do have three questions about it which I’m just going to raise here as food for thought.
Firstly, if we are leaving food debris dumps conspicuous enough to attract wolf packs, what else are they attracting? With bear and other dangerous predators in the environment, leaving accessible food is a recipe for disaster. We know hunter gatherers groups are smart about disposal in landscapes with other predators, so we should think smarter about this too or find the archaeological evidence.
We have a much deeper history of leaving food traces in the landscapes, providing food sources for larger social predators like foxes and smaller scavengers for millenia. Why then does complex social interaction with the wolf happen so late? It would seem to me that, in the absence of a clear behavioral change in human food waste disposal, it is more likely to be driven by processes of human social or cognitive change. In the context of the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic I think we should look to the changes in human behaviour relating to animal and human/animal hybrid portrayal in the exceptional record of art that appears after 40k BP. Whether driven by cognitive or cultural processes, the art suggests a important perspective on the relationship between the animal and human world, one which is routinely blurred to powerful effect. Is it possible that this blurring sets the stage for integration of some mammal species into human society?
This leads me onto my last point. The hypothesis which see the wolf as scavenging on the margins of human settlement, is a very passive explanation that robs the process of an immediate, emotional as well as functional/economic basis for domestication. The relationship between humans and domesticated animals has a far more deeply rooted basis than simply utility and food. Canines embed themselves in human societies because wolf pack behavior matches our primate social structures enough for a functional relationship. If we accept this fact then we must also accept that human and dogs are active agents in these dog-human hybrid societies, negotiating biological, hormonal, resource sharing and social dominance dynamics to constantly maintain position and cohesion The complexity of this incredible process is rather reduced by the dog on the dump hypothesis.
Ultimately I think we have to look at how we conceive and use the term domestication. It’s far more than a taming of the wild through conscious manipulation, humans as a force of natural selection and genetic engineers. We need to think about the transformations at work within our own brains and societies. Perhaps viewing the integration of wolf into human societies as a significant addition to the Late Pleistocene package of behavioral modernity, rather than a prequel to Holocene domestication of livestock.