Did hunting with the wolf accelerate human evolution?

The relationship between man and the dog has a long history of collaboration, affection and customs. However a new theory has emerged that suggests that this ancient pairing also affected the evolution of man. Anthropologist Pat Shipman, a retired professor at Pennsylvania State University and author writes about this possibility in her new book: The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. In her book, the professor argues that the Homo sapiens’ hunting alliance with wolves or ‘wolf-dogs’ as she calls them, enabled them to survive when their rivals the Neanderthals did not, leading to the extinction of the Neanderthal species.

Hunting with wolves and the inevitable extinction of the Neanderthals

The most popular explanation for the extinction of Neanderthals 35 thousand years ago is climate change, but Professor Shipman is not very convinced of that argument because modern bone re-dating methods don’t support that long-held theory. This left her with a question as to why Neanderthals that had lived successfully in Europe and Asia for a couple of hundred thousand years became extinct when a relative newcomer to the region, the Homo sapien, survived. In a recent interview with National Geographic she explained: “Here are these two species, us and Neanderthals, which are closely related. We both made tools, had fire, were social and good hunters. So how come one survived and the other didn’t? Especially as the one that was the outsider survived, when you’d think the one that had been there for hundreds of thousands of years would know the terrain and the animals and how to survive.”

The key to Shipman’s new theory lies in man’s hunt collaboration with an animal species similar to wolves and dogs. However, on the precise origins of the Canis species, she is less sure: “It’s not clear if it’s appropriate to call these things wolves or dogs. They’re not modern dogs, and they’re not modern wolves. They’re not ancient wolves, either. They’re a distinctive group.”

Whether wolf, dog or an entirely different species, thanks to this partnership modern man would compensate for his physical shortcomings by creating a perfect working relationship with the quadruped. From the predators’ anatomy, it can be inferred that they were able to track their prey by scent. They had a body built for running. Humans, on the other hand, did not run very quickly and had a poor sense of smell in comparison, however they did have long-range weapons, such as bows and arrows at their disposal to finish the kill from a safe distance. Professor Shipman has a clear vision of how humans and ‘wolf dogs’ hunted in unison: “The wolf dogs tracked the prey, running after them very quickly and trapping them, holding them in place until they tired. At this point the hunters intervened, killing them from a distance. The wolf dogs didn’t have to go and kill this thing with their teeth, thereby lowering the risk of injury and death from very large animals like mammoths. For humans, it meant you could find the animals a lot quicker and kill them more efficiently. More food, less risk, faster.”

Men, wolves and dogs: the ancient peaceful coexistence that challenges unfounded clichés

Shipman’s fascinating theory is not far removed from the idea behind The Promise, the short film produced by Almo Nature and directed by Gabriele Salvatores, that depicts how this shadowy creature, so closely related to the wolf and dog did not threatened the safety of man in ancient times but put in his service its exceptional predatory qualities that allowed man to survive and prosper. This historic link is further reason to better know and respect this magnificent animal and especially to safeguard its existence as an irreplaceable part of the heritage of today’s biodiversity.