The Story of Man’s Best Friend

I had been meaning to write about the domestication and evolution of dogs for a while now. As I was sitting on that thought, a splendid Quora question popped up: Why was dog the first animal to be domesticated? Naturally, I dropped my blog post idea and switched to answering this question.

It seems to be a common misconception that cattle and cows, and even horses were domesticated much before dogs were. However, as I explain below, dogs actually helped domesticate cattle about 10,000 years ago, and horses were domesticated hardly 4000 years ago. I also included some details about the Earth’s geological history and now am itching more than ever to write about stuff I’ve learned the past year. Like how there were no flowers between 3.4 billion years ago when photosynthesis first occurred to 345 million years ago when the dinosaurs came.

Anyway, taking this post to the dogs.

If you want a TL;DR of this, it’s two things: One, simply because hunting came before farming, and two, wolves and dogs adapted to each other’s company quite quickly.

Dogs, at the time of early domestication approximately 30,000 years ago, were nothing more than tamer feral wolves. In the Paleolithic period, humans lived on ice that covered most of the planet and evolved from using stone tools to inventing primitive religion to drawing the first cave paintings, and hunted giant woolly mammoths. The Neolithic period gave rise to both farming and metal tools (Copper Age/Bronze Age/Iron Age), use of pottery, and first domestication of cattle and milking of the cow. These two periods have a sharp contrast between them: a world covered with ice and snow where nothing grew and man had to hunt giant tortoises to eat food, to fertile farmlands everywhere with lots of  agriculture, warmer weather, and more domesticated animals than men.The transitionary period is called the Mesolithic and that’s when dogs walked into the picture.

The  end of Paleolithic marks the end of the last Ice Age and gave way to the Mesolithic period. Temperatures suddenly became warmer and icelands  gave way to plain, large, open grass steppes. The vegetation was primarily Steppe-Tundra biome: “cold, dry climate with treeless open herbaceous vegetation,” as Wikipedia puts it. Woolly mammoths went into extinction under the combined effects of climate change and human hunting (we never learn, do we?), and all large animals that roamed open areas were under threat without the cover of the cold. Naturally, most of them giant animals went extinct.

(Paleoindians hunting a glyptodon. Image courtesy of Heinrich Harder, famous for his depictions of early humans).

The primary hunters to emerge from the omnivorous group were the hunter-gatherer human and the medium  sized primitive ancestor of the modern wolf/dog. Hyenas were around, but preferred only lowlands, while humans and wolves could hunt on all kinds of terrain. They were easily outnumbered. Humans started to hunt large animals in groups, as did wolves. The primary prey was reindeer. Eventually, and not too gradually, the large amount of hunting waste generated by humans started to draw in wolves to human habitat. This moved wolves and humans to regular close quarters. While both species did hunt and kill each other for  food, they quickly realized that working together was mutually much more  beneficial.

(Image from fossilsfromthepast.wordpress.com)

Early human societies were very similar to primitive wolf packs: dominant male member with an authoritative female and their progeny. In fact, it is often said that humans have been “lupified” as a result of  intermingling with the wolf. Early hunter-gatherers were often solitary  humans who took on observed wolf behavior and started hunting in packs. Therefore, “leaders” were given priority for consumption of food, which was often “wolfed down.” Even early monogamy is attributed to the wolf. Such observation of mutual copying of behavior led to a lot of  legends about wolves suckling human babies. But more importantly, human  weapons could bring down large sized prey that wolves couldn’t, and  wolves had speed and agility that humans couldn’t match. Tamer wolves  from packs had more access to human settlements and abandoned cubs soon  formed a part of a settlement. Wolf skeletons have been found alongside humans’ as early as 400,000 years ago. Eventually, some wolves became  “domesticated” and very rapidly evolved to form the primitive dog.

Dog evolution, much like the evolution of other domesticated animals is ridiculously quick. Even today, experiments on the Domesticated silver fox show that very visible extreme changes can happen in as less as 50  years if there’s a sizeable benefit to domestication. Early wolves were of two types. Remember how there was only ice and open vegetation? Northern caps were heavy ice with heavily furred early wolf, and the lower latitudes had early wolves with thin fur. Dog domestication occured accross the globe, simultaneousy, independently, and rapidly over a period of 10,000 years. Primitive dogs, subsequently resembled their parental wolves in overall structure and brought with them specific abilities.

(Image from http://old.bpsd.org)

(Cave painting of primitive dog from 17,000 years ago in France)

Primitive dogs evolved to suit their habitat. The earliest known breeds that are in existence today are the Chow Chow (Siberian/Mongolian guard dog), Basenji (African open grassland hunter) and the Shar Pei (Chinese cold terrain hunter), Shiba Inu (Japanese mountain hunter), Akita (Japanese bear and deer hunter), Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute (Siberian and Alaskan transporter), Afghan Hound (Afghani sight hunting sprinter), and Saluki (Iranian sight hunter for small creatures). All of these dogs, other dogs today, extinct breeds, and the Grey Wolf are all descended from a common primitive wolf that man initially domesticated.


(Image from HomePage | The Adapa Project, a great reource to study how breeds are related to each other).

Domestication of dog was a huge help to domestication of cattle. Dogs evolved then (and now) to work in conjunction with humans and helped herd and domesticate sheep and goats during the Neolithic age, when man first started farming and milking.

An animal is successfully domesticated when it is willing to breed away from its natural habitat or in captivity. As primitive dogs showed the tendency to breed beside humans, early humans in different parts of the world performed selective breeding for desirable traits, leading to the huge variety of dogs we have today.

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8 comments on “The Story of Man’s Best Friend

  1. sarath

    Very informative.. But i thought it started with the cubs adopted by the Stark Children 🙂

  2. Arpit Tolani

    Wow…. That was very informative…

  3. Ritwik

    Just awesome! Thank you ma’am for such wonderful and informative writing.

  4. Samriddh Dasgupta

    Thank you for the well researched and rather elaborate article. I think my weekend is going to be spent reading your work.

    @samriddhd

  5. Sankar

    I was randomly browsing various pages and somehow ended up here. Extra-ordinarily detailed post. Thanks for sharing.

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