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SALT LAKE CITY — There may never have been a truer descriptor than "man's best friend."
Anthropologists disagree about exactly how humans overcame the Neanderthals to become the dominant species — some say climate change was a major factor; others say it was the ability of humans to socially coalesce. Others theorize that the humans' sheer numbers beat out the Neanderthals.
Now, a new study has found that dogs may have played a role in humans winning the evolutionary race. The dog, whose domestication has provided countless people with warmth and companionship, may also have helped to save humankind as a whole, by domesticating the very people who thought they were domesticating it.
Mellars and French compared numerous Neanderthal and modern-human archeological sites, questioning why the Neanderthals, who beat humans to those environments by about 250,000 years, had not adapted to the environments as well and humans did. They came to the conclusion that modern humans grew by such large numbers in a relatively short amount of time that they overpowered Neanderthals due to the sheer size of their population.
A new study has found that dogs may have played a role in humans winning the evolutionary race.
Shipman analyzed the study, along with myriad other studies on the same topic, and came to a different conclusion: humans were able to survive due in part to the domestication of the dog, along with a subtle change in human anatomy that allowed them to communicate more clearly with dogs.
Until recently, dogs were believed to have been domesticated about 17,000 years ago — long after the Neanderthals' extinction. A 2009 study, though, dated some canid skulls to about 32,000 years ago. A 2012 study by the same team dated other canid skulls to about 27,000 years ago.
Shipman points out that even those early dogs do not quite reach back to the date of Neanderthal-human overlap, between 35,000 and 45,000 years ago. The domestication process was probably in play long before the time period from which the fossils originated, Shipman said.
By analyzing the canid bone fossils, Shipman found that early humans participated in ritualized dog worship and even made jewelry out of the dogs' teeth — something Paleolithic people rarely did with animals they simply used for food. Shipman also pointed out that dogs are rarely depicted in cave art — suggesting that Paleolithic peoples saw dogs as something more akin to fellow beings than to animals for eating.
Also contributing to the population increase could have been dogs being used for hunting, pointing humans to their desired prey and providing food needed for survival.
Based on the size of Paleolithic dogs, Shipman speculated that they may have been used as beasts of burden, hauling travois or strapped-on packs. Using dogs to carry large amounts of meat during a hunt would have saved humans valuable energy, leading to a healthier community that would have seen higher birthrates — accounting for the population increase about which Mellars and French theorized.
Also contributing to the population increase could have been dogs being used for hunting, pointing humans to their desired prey and providing food needed for survival. Shipman's research showed the average carcass weight per hunter increased by 56 percent when a dog was used to hunt.
Shipman also speculated that the dog-human connection led to a change in human anatomy that led to a deeper connection between the two species. Shipman points out that the whites of humans' eyes are far more visible than those of other primates, presenting a disadvantage while hunting: visible eye-whites give away hunters' locations.
They also give away emotion, though, which would have helped humans communicate more clearly with each other — an advantage in silent communication that Shipman speculates led to an impulse toward cooperation that would have helped the human species thrive.
The newly useful communication tool not only helped humans communicate with each other — it helped them communicate with dogs, as well, who have been shown to connect with a gaze in a similar way to how babies connect. The eye-white hypothesis is just that — Shipman noted that it was merely a thought — but if found true in future studies, it could help to further explain humans' unique connection with man's best friend.