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21 September 2010
Did pets contribute to human development?

A professor of biological anthropology at Pennsylvania State University (USA), Pat Shipman, has written an article in which she postulates on the contribution that the domestication of animals has made on human development. Although there is some speculation in her theory, there is also a large amount of evidence taken from archaeological digs and fossil records. She believes that the observation of animal behaviour encouraged us to make tools, use languages and create art.
     As an example of tool creation (one of her specialities), although tenuous & contentious, is the development of cutting tools to dismember large animal kills. Although man was a major preditor there were larger ones around and it was imperative that the meat was stripped off the bone and removed as quickly as possible (the use of teeth alone was not enough), so sharp impliments were developed.
     The examples of the development of language and art are a little easier to understand. As man developed a wealth of knowledge on animal behaviour, movements and hunting this information had to be conveyed to others. Pat Shipman quotes the example of the Lascaux cave paintings. The vast majority of the images portrayed are of animals. "It's all about animals" she says. "There are very few depictions of humans and they're not very realistic. The depictions of animals are amazing, you can tell this is a depiction of a prehistoric horse in its summer coat or that this is a rhino in sexual posture".
     The logical development of this wealth of knowledge was the domestication of animals to overcome the variability and dangers of hunting in the wild. This in turn leads to the befriending of certain animals and their use to further advance farming techniques.
     Pat Shipman herself admits that her article is just a hypothesis and is open to criticism, and has already caused some controversy, but she is hoping that it will spark a debate and encourage others to develop her ideas. Barbara King, an anthropologist at the College of William & Mary, is quoted as saying that Shipman's proposals are "radical to the degree that it really puts front and centre the animal-human bond in a way that hasn't been seen before".

Edited from The Boston Globe (12 September 2010)

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