Dogs, Domestication and Dumps.


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.



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2 responses to “Dogs, Domestication and Dumps.

  1. Angela

    This is interesting stuff, and something I am working on at the moment.

    Personally, I am not a big believer that fossil or DNA evidence supports dog domestication from earlier than about 16,000. The DNA evidence is certainly inconclusive, and I think the fossil evidence is really open to interpretation.

    As for your question about why domestication came so late… I think a process of a sort of co-dependent domestication is highly likely, and certainly more realistic than theories like the taking of wolf cubs from a den. I think the timing matches pretty well with the beginning of more sedentary groups, which I believe would have been an important factor in the process of domestication. If the Belyaev fox experiments (also something Crockford writes about in relation to dog coat color) have taught us anything, it is that the process of domestication likely started with a very small segment of a population that was willing, in the first instance, to get close enough to humans to feed off garbage dumps, etc., and then subsequent generations which became more and more comfortable around humans to the point of eventual overlap. I think this scenario is nearly impossible with highly-mobile foragers that are traveling in and out of different wolf ranges, but possible with a more semi-sedentary group.

    I think you are exactly right that human and wolf social structures are so similar, daylight group hunters who work together to take down larger prey, that it sort of sets. I think its quite interesting that Fox (1978) suggested that a wolf pack of about ten and a band of prehistoric human hunters would have had roughly the same estimated home range of 500-1000 square miles. I certainly think that human groups would have figured out fairly quickly that early domesticated dogs made ideal hunting partners, in addition to watchdogs, bed warmers, human waste disposal, etc.

    Anyway, interesting stuff.

    Fox, M.W., 1978. The dog: its domestication and behavior. Garland Publishing Inc., 545 Madison Avenue.

  2. Wow Angela, thanks for replying, great to have canine expert’s view. These were just some idle thoughts really. I remember being struck by James Steele’s mapping of wolf territories onto Neanderthal raw material transport distances, the fit of human hunting groups perhaps approximating the spatial areas of other predators. I agree with increased sedentism it’s more likely, i just don’t like the term domestication for what might be happening here. I’m starting to view a lot of modern human behaviour through the lense of social awareness, bringing the wolf into the human social sphere might be initiated through more than just successive breeding. The dog seems such a passive agent in the dynamic. What have you published so far I can read?

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