Neanderthals had already been in Europe for about 200,000 years when modern (Cro-Magnon) humans arrived about 40,000 years ago. But by about 10,000 years later, the new arrivals had taken over. How come?
There have been lots of theories – from parasites to climate changes to better weapons. But the newest theory is: dogs.
Anthropologist Pat Shipman analyzed fossilized dog bones, particularly skeletons found at the 27,000-year-old Predmosti site in the Czech Republic, and concluded that our forebears engaged in ritualistic dog worship, wore their teeth as jewelry, and most likely did not eat them. (She notes that humans rarely made jewelry out of animals they ate, and that there are few dogs in cave paintings – where the paintings are mainly of animals they hunted.)
That means that the bond between humans and dogs was much stronger than simply the old “guarding the cave and getting a bone in return” idea, and that humans recognized an enormous dependence on their new best friends.
In American Scientist, Shipman writes:
One of the Predmosti dogs was found with its jaw and cranium still attached to each other in a lifelike position and with a large piece of bone wedged in its mouth. The bone must have been inserted shortly after the dog’s death, while muscles and ligaments still held the jaw to the cranium. The team suggests that in the past, as now, valued hunting dogs were honored and perhaps buried with ritual.
… Like humans, canids are very rarely depicted in Paleolithic cave art, also suggesting that the cave artists might have regarded canids as unusually close to humans.
This 27,000-year-old dog skull was found in the Czech Republic with a mammoth bone in its mouth;
the bone was apparently placed there shortly after the dog’s death, probably as part of a funeral ritual.
Photo by Mietje Germonpre.
Drawing on the work of another researcher, Shipman says:
Forty percent of the 20 dog and wolf crania found at Predmosti have been pierced. Citing evidence from northern hunting peoples around the world who ceremonially open the braincases of slain carnivores, Mietje Germonpre and her colleagues surmise that the perforation of the Paleolithic dog skulls may have had a ritual significance.
“At Predmosti,” the team wrote, “the large number of perforated braincases of large canids and the dog skull holding a bone between its front teeth hint at a specific relationship between humans and large canids, including the possibility of the existence of a wolf/dog ritual that could be connected with the sending of souls. “
Shipman says that the bond between humans and dogs must have grown close very fast, as dogs took part in hunting by spotting prey animals, carrying bags and equipment, and, in return, sharing in the spoils.
All of this enabled modern humans to have larger families and reproduce faster, quickly outnumbering the Neanderthals.
Shipman offers one more critical way in which humans and dogs were able to cooperate: Dogs developed the ability to follow the gaze of their guardians – meaning that when we look toward something (without pointing or nodding toward it), dogs have learned to recognize that we’re directing their attention toward it. Most other animals don’t follow a human gaze. (Dolphins are one of the very few exceptions.) And being able to follow a gaze would be very helpful during a hunt.
Humans love to look into their dogs’ eyes to “read” their emotions. Dogs apparently feel the same. Maybe—just maybe—this reciprocal communication was instrumental in the survival of our species.
If Shipman is right, then the suggestion is not simply that dogs have been our best friends for a long time, but that we owe much of our development to them, and that without them we may never have taken over from the Neanderthals.
Basically, as she puts it: “Animals were not incidental to our evolution into Homo sapiens – They were essential to it. They are what made us human.”
You can read Pat Shipman’s article in full at American Scientist.