| 3 March 2015
Hunting with wolves helped humans outsmart Neanderthals
According to a leading anthropologist, early dogs played a critical role in the modern human's takeover of Europe 40,000 years ago.
"At that time, modern humans, Neanderthals and wolves were all top predators and competed to kill mammoths and other huge herbivores," says Professor Pat Shipman, of Pennsylvania State University. "But then we formed an alliance with the wolf and that would have been the end for the Neanderthal." If Shipman is right, she will have solved one of evolution's most intriguing mysteries.
Modern humans are known to have evolved in Africa. They began to emigrate around 70,000 years ago, reaching Europe 25,000 years later. The continent was then dominated by our evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals, who had lived there for more than 200,000 years. Within a few thousand years of our arrival, however, they disappeared.
Most argue that modern humans were responsible. Shipman believes we had an accomplice.
"Early wolf-dogs would have tracked and harassed animals like elk and bison and would have hounded them until they tired," says Shipman. "Then humans would have killed them with spears or bows and arrows. "This meant the dogs did not need to approach these large cornered animals to finish them off - often the most dangerous part of a hunt - while humans didn't have to expend energy in tracking and wearing down prey."
At the time, the European landscape was dominated by large herbivores. Both Neanderthals and modern humans hunted them.
"Even if you brought down a bison, within minutes other carnivores would have been lining up to attack you and steal your prey," says Shipman. Once humans and wolves joined forces, they dominated the food chain in prehistoric Europe.
The idea is controversial because it pushes back the origins of dog domestication. Most scientists had previously argued the domestication of dogs began with the rise of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Shipman places it before the last Ice Age, pointing to recent discoveries of 33,000-year-old fossil remains of dogs in Siberia and Belgium, which show clear signs of domestication: shorter snouts, wider jaws, and more crowded teeth.
By contrast, there is no evidence of any kind that Neanderthals had any relationship with dogs.
Edited from The Guardian (1 March 2015)
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