• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

A Dog's Tale: The strange evolution of our BFF

During the Ice Age, an eight-year-old walked, apparently calmly, along a narrow passage deep inside Chauvet Cave, in southern France, leaving bare footprints in what was once damp clay. Next to the child’s tracks are others, in chilling parallel – those of an adult wolf.

We can’t be sure the prints were made at the same time, although the path is narrow here, and the two sets don’t cross. The cave, known for its spectacular prehistoric art, was sealed by rockfalls around 28,000 years ago.

It is tantalising to think these faint traces date back to a time before dogs existed. Bryan Sykes, in his new book The Wolf Within (William Collins), asks: “Was the wolf hunting the boy? Or were they exploring the cave together, companions in a great adventure? The footprints hint at a very close relationship, friendship even, between the boy and the wolf. Or was the animal that trotted comfortably at the boy’s side no longer a wolf, but already on its way to becoming a dog?”

Sykes is emeritus professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford, and famous for The Seven Daughters of Eve (2001), a romantic book about human inheritance that helped to kickstart the genealogical DNA-testing industry. Despite being terrified of dogs for most of his life, he is well equipped to explain canine genetic evolution, writing with a clarity of style and enthusiasm that is actually puppyish at times.

Read more: The nature of nurture: How much genes determine identity

The genetic science is in, says Sykes. An extinct European wolf is ancestral to every single dog alive today, from schnauzers to St Bernards. Coyotes and jackals didn’t get a look in. This means that all dogs are, believe it or not, the same species – and this a mere subspecies of wolf – Canis lupus.

The dog, Canis lupus familiaris, comes in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes. In recent years there has been intense lobbying in Australia for dingos to be recognised as the separate species “Canis dingo”, an idea greeted with consternation by palaeontologists, geneticists and taxonomists. Twelve academic heavyweights squashed the idea in a paper entitled “The Dogma of Dingos”. “Overwhelming current evidence,” they wrote, “from archaeology and genomics indicates that the dingo is of recent origin in Australia and shares immediate ancestry with other domestic dogs.” One of the twelve, renowned palaeontologist, conservationist and writer Tim Flannery fumed: "This is very sadly what happens when Australia no longer offers university training in taxonomy." In biology, taxonomy is the science of defining groups of animals.

Genetic tests have revealed that even pedigree dogs share a tangled ancestry. And some modern wolves, in a surprising twist, have dog genes. DNA has flowed both ways, it seems – dogs will be dogs, after all. Or wolves will be dogs will be wolves (Stop right there – Ed).

There are many clues our relationship with dogs is vanishingly ancient. Dogs interred in pre-Columbian American burial sites, for instance, are more closely related to European wolves than American ones. They appear to have arrived in America from Asia, like (and, no doubt, alongside) the indigenous peoples of America.

Although it is difficult to know exactly when we first began to live with wolves, and why, we do know our inter-species bond pre-dates agriculture, says Sykes. As the first animal to be domesticated, they represent a huge shift in our fortunes, one as seismic as the taming of fire or the first stone tools.

 But what did tiny bands of hunter-gatherers need wolves/dogs for? Sykes is not the first to suggest they may have helped us catch the lumbering, dangerous “megafauna” that our species, Homo sapiens, faced when we first arrived in Europe 42,000 years ago: huge cattle called aurochs, bison, woolly rhino and mammoth. It must have been a win-win for both sets of intelligent, apex predators, already hunting in packs, to collaborate, even on lesser game such as horse and elk. Wolves had the nose, the stamina and speed; we had the spear throwers.

Wolves may have corralled an animal, Sykes speculates, until human hunters arrived. Modern wolves still behave this way, standing in a circle around a single, large prey animal until it tires.

 The general consensus that wolves evolved into dogs after hanging around human rubbish dumps is something the excitable prof finds “dreary in the extreme”. Anyway, he points out, the dates don’t fit: the first uncontested dog skeleton ever found is 14,200 years old, thousands of years older than the first village rubbish dumps. And dogs must have begun to evolve earlier than this. Many consider the oldest prehistoric dog relic ever found to be a canine skull from the Goyet Caves in Belgium that’s 34,000 years old. Sykes says the skull is what you might expect to find in a large, transitional dog with recent wolfish ancestry – a “wolf-dog.”

Left: the cover of Pat Shipman’s book, The Invaders, visualises an ancient relationship between humans and “wolf-dogs”. Right: A New Zealand farmer with his sheepdog. Oxford University professor Bryan Sykes believes our working relationship with dogs pre-dates agriculture.
If Sykes writes like an unleashed hound at the beach that sometimes loses its ball (a series of interviews with dog owners doesn’t add much), the great writer and anthropologist Pat Shipman makes the same case with more poise and detail (although less about genetics). A great academic dane, to Sykes’ clever poodle.

In her book The Invaders (Harvard University Press, 2015), Shipman presents striking evidence that something turbo-charged human hunting capability in Palaeolithic Europe. A cascade of extinctions followed the arrival of the trickle of humans from Africa who represented, in her opinion, a classic invasive species. Mammoth, woolly rhino, aurochs and even carnivores including cave bear and lion melted under our onslaught. The only species, apart from yours truly, that appeared to prosper during a millennia of carnage were wolves.

The most poignant victims were our relatives, the Neanderthals, who did not survive our arrival for long. Although the reasons for their disappearance are still debated, their high metabolic needs made them vulnerable to a dwindling food supply. In fast-food terms, someone once figured out that a pregnant Neanderthal living in frigid, Ice Age conditions would need to eat 10 large cheeseburgers per day. Shipman thinks “wolf-dogs” expanded human hunting capabilities so much that Neanderthals were collateral damage in the resulting European-wide faunal collapse.

“Some very strange things changed between about 45,000 years ago and 35,000 years ago,” writes Shipman, “and, in total, are so extraordinary they indicate a huge shift.”

Humans, faced with their vast new larder, became killing machines, she says, leaving mountains of mammoth bones in “mega-sites” where the density of skeletons could be “absurd”. One site, containing 86 individual mammoths, has up to one mammoth per square metre. They couldn’t have stood this close to one another when they were alive. The hunters built huts from their bones and wore necklaces of wolves’ teeth.

Read more: Misinfodemic: When fake news costs lives

Sykes, in his turn, unpicks what science has learned of the process that turned wolves into guard dogs, bloodhounds, terriers and toy dogs, responsive pets, and inbred pedigrees with exorbitant risk of recessive genetic disorders. He devotes an entire, approving chapter to the New Zealand huntaway, whose breeders value talent, energy and guts over looks or pedigree.

These Kiwi working dogs epitomise, in Shipman’s words, the “living tools” we used to propel us, for good and ill, into the modern age.            

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.

Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email.