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What Dogs Gave Us

We domesticated dogs. And dogs, in return, made human civilization possible.

Work with me here. A lot of my recent reading has been about human origins, stemming from my fascination with Homo Neanderthalis and what became of him. Two books of note: The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond (1993) and Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade (2007.) Jared Diamond is always a good read, and even though the book is showing its age I strongly recommend it. Wade covers much of the same turf, but does so with the tools of DNA analysis that simply didn’t exist twenty years ago, when Diamond was doing his research. By counting mutations and working backwards through Y (male) chromosomal DNA and mitochondrial (female) chromosomal DNA, we can infer a great deal about human populations, where they came from, how they changed, and when. Of some of it I’m dubious–the extrapolation about the sources of human language, for example, seems a stretch–but most of it is no longer controversial, nor even exotic.

Both authors draw on anthropological research of stone-age peoples who survived into the 20th century. (Diamond did a lot of that research himself, in New Guinea.) The picture they paint of early humanity is grim: We are not fallen angels. We are risen apes. The hallmark of early humanity was deliberate genocide: New Guinea tribesmen told Diamond straight-out that their overall tribal goal was the extinction of other tribes. The homicide rates among such tribes are many times that of the homicide rate in Detroit; men who cannot claim to have killed another man often cannot persuade women to marry them. This seems to have been the pattern for hunter-gatherer societies as far back as we can see via the fossil record. Many Neanderthal skeletons show the marks of multiple healed bone and skull fractures, and a couple of them evidence of spear impingement on bone. Constant warfare was the pattern, and the method (judging from modern stone-age peoples) was the dawn raid: Raiders would stealthily draw close to a rival tribe’s encampment, and wait for the rivals to turn in. Then, when there was just enough dawn light to move well, the attackers would fall upon the sleeping rivals and spear them where they lay.

This worked, and worked well. People have to sleep, so the attackers had the advantage. Then one day about 15,000 years ago, something unexpected happened: Animals around the rival encampment sensed the attackers creeping in for the kill, and set up a huge and unfamiliar racket. The rival group, awakened by the animals, grabbed their spears and gave chase. The attackers had been up all night waiting for just the right moment. The defenders had just had a good night’s sleep. They could outrun their sleepy-eyed assailants, who had a ways to go to return to their home turf. More than a few attackers probably took a spear through an eye socket, and once enough of your dawn raiders take a spear through an eye socket, dawn raiding becomes a lot less compelling.

All because of some previously unknown animals who looked like wolves but made noises that wolves did not make–and appeared to consider the rival camp to be friends rather than food.

As best we can tell, dogs were first domesticated about 15,000 years ago, which was just about the time that Homo Sapiens was moving from wandering hunter-gatherer societies to settled societies that eventually became agricultural and pastoral societies. Just how they were domesticated is still unknown, but the work of Belyaev and his silver fox suggests simple selection by temperament: Ancient wolves became camp followers, and ancient humans tossed them scraps. Wolves who could stand to be near humans ate better without working as hard and had more pups. The few stone-age tribes we’ve been able to study sometimes captured wild animal juveniles and kept them as entertainment until they became grouchy on maturity. Dogs need to be handled as puppies to be fully at peace with humanity as adults; perhaps those wolves-in-transition descended from adult wolves who were handled by humans as pups and remembered: Those two-legged whatchamacallits handled me without hurting me–and they toss me aurochs bones!

15,000 years ago, that was a helluva deal if you were a wolf.

Explaining the bark is tougher, but group selection suggests that if some quirk in the genes of certain wolves allowed those two-legged whatchamacallits to survive and thrive, there’d be more aurochs bones and more yappy wolf/dog pups. Evolution works fast: Belyaev turned wild fox into peculiar (if not completely domesticated) pets in only 40 years, simply by selecting fox who were most willing to be handled when young and least snarly and aggressive when mature. A fox who will lick your face instead of biting your nose off is most of the way to a dog anyway; in another hundred years, he’d be sleeping at the foot of your bed and fetching tennis balls.

The bottom line is this: Without dawn raids, settled living rather than wandering became possible, and settled living fostered the development of villages and agriculture and trade and writing and all the other precursors of the lives we live today.

The Neanderthals had bigger brains than we do. What they didn’t have were dogs. And, lacking dogs, the unfortunate louts dawn-raided one another to extinction, leaving homo sap and his faithful yappers to pick up the turf and eventually take over the world.

Raise a glass of Laughing Lab Ale to canis familiaris: Everything we are we owe to him. Good dog!


  1. That’s an interesting hypothesis, certainly. They might also have been an advantage because you didn’t have as much predation on your young by animals for the same reason, and it meant that everyone in the tribe could sleep at the same time.

    Dogs were also beasts of burden for the Native Americans, prior to the arrival of the horse. Hitched with a travois – two poles suspended from the side of the animal to drag on the ground behind him, then laced together behind him – a biggish dog can carry a useful load. Obviously the Eskimos made great use of dogs pulling sleds as well.

    But I must take issue with the idea that by making hunter-gatherer societies more functional that dogs made /civilization/ possible. Civilization, that is, living in cities, is a function of the cultivation of land, particularly the grain crops that so attract mice and rats into human storerooms. It seems to me that if dogs made it possible for humans to survive the hunter-gatherer years (which may well be the case) it is cats that made cultivated grain viable, thus making /civilization/ possible. 😉


  2. Somebody needs to write the story of how the cat came to us, and I’m with you here: Grain bins require cats or something like them, and I’m far from sure that there has ever been something like them.

    That said, what dogs really enabled was settled–rather than nomadic and raiding–society, which was the critical path toward civilization and everything else. Dogs actually fell out of favor in some settled societies with marginal economies, becoming pariah dogs, largely because there wasn’t much call for tribal alarm systems. So it wasn’t an unending picnic for them, especially in the Far East.

  3. PS: Neanderthals may not have had dogs, and they may not have had effective cooling of their larger brains, either. Nevertheless, they didn’t really go away. Humans being humans and, presumably our cousins the Neanderthals were the same way, the two species discovered they were sexually compatible, and over time the Neanderthal genome became so dilute that they were no longer a distinct species. This, we know from sequenced Neanderthal DNA. However, the old chestnut that one genetic trait that comes from Neanderthals is pale skin and red hair seems to be in error, as Neanderthals had their own mutation of the gene in question, and it’s different from the one found in modern humans.

    1. I’ve read lots of discussion on both sides of the aisle; there are people who don’t think interbreeding happened that often, and that there was enough genetic difference that offspring would be infertile in most cases, maybe a little better than mules, but not much. Wade cites them and doubts that there was much interbreeding. It would be tough to know for sure without better DNA.

      Somewhere I did read that there are plenty of Neanderthal bones with healed bone trauma dating back long before the confrontation with H. Sap, suggesting that they were killing one another long before we were killing them. I think it’s possible that there was a sort of arms race on the Neanderthal side of the fence, in that expanding brains led to better raiding strategies, which went past sorting for the strongest to reducing population numbers below viability.

      Bichons would have been the ultimate Neanderthal weapon: Turn a bunch of them loose in an enemy camp, and the enemy would wake up and die laughing.

      1. I knew the Neanderthals had a lot of healed bone trauma, but my impression (probably from a History Channel special, so the usual grains of salt apply) was that it was believed to have been from hunting the megafauna of the day. Being one of half a dozen guys with spears killing a mammoth is a high-risk lifestyle. Still. Given /our/ species’ inborn xenophobia (see also your discussions on the Uncanny Valley) one would expect Neanderthal probably did the same things.

        Xenophobia does seem to operate against interbreeding with other species of humanoids, too, but it never stopped Clark and Lois or Amanda and Sarek. Interesting concepts in the real world that sci fi just kind of ignores. 🙂


  4. I believe cats did come much later, and they’re far far less physically changed from their wild ancestors, which appear to be these:

    Though there’s some question whether feral cat DNA has back-contaminated the wild species to the point where it’s really hard to tell. You think Bichons are frisky… 🙂


  5. Tom Dison says:

    My pet and friend of 11 years just passed away. She was a beautiful, friendly black lab. She brought us a seemingly limitless supply of unconditional love and enthusiasm. That is all.

    p.s., In January I bought the 3rd edition of your assembler book, thinking it was just for my own personal enjoyment. This summer I had to take a compiler class (at 52 I went back to school), and 5 of the labs were using an online Tool called Frances, that generated assembly code from C code. After your book (I also bought the other two when they came out), it was a breeze. Frances generated AT&T syntax, so your section on the differences in syntax were very helpful. Thanks!

  6. Bob Fegert says:

    Great post!
    Made me think of the stories of the old sci fi writer Clifford Simak…the guy really loved the dogs.

    Look over the links from a google search on “Simak dogs”

  7. I always figured it was women who gave us dogs. Sometime around 15K to 30K years ago, the men killed the adult members of a wolf pack. The men were about to kill the litter of pups, too, but the women intervened. (There are documented cases in modern primitive societies of human women nursing babies of other species, just as the she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus.) As you say, the wolf pups grew up in a human pack, and the rest is history.

    And, despite the fact that men have been responsible for nearly every invention with moving parts, I think it was probably a woman who developed one of the fundamental technologies that allowed civilizations to develop. Men are pretty much oblivious to anything but threats and prey. They have to be to succeed as hunters. Women *notice* things. They have to be good at that to be successful gatherers.

    So, one morning about 6,000 years ago, a woman happened to look at the camp fire, which had been built in a stone circle with rocks of copper ore. The charcoal produced by the fire reduced the copper ore to metallic copper, and the rest is history.

  8. Lee Hart says:

    A thoughtful hypothesis, Jeff. Thanks!

    On the story of how cats (and dogs) came to us: See Rudyard Kipling’s “The cat who walked alone.” 🙂

  9. Keith Dick says:

    I post here not with the intention to contradict any of the hypothosis, but to relate a possibly conflicting account, whose reliability I do not know.

    By coincidence, I happen to be reading “The Highly Sensitive Person — How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You” by Elaine N. Aron, published in 1999. The point of the book is not anthropology, but rather the problems experienced in modern society by people whose physiology is such that they are much more sensitive to many stimuli than most people are. But in the first chapter, setting up the background, Ms. Aron relates an account of the development of human culture that seems at odds with some of what you wrote here, and I wonder whether they really are in conflict or whether the two can be consistent. Here are the first two paragraphs under the subhead “Royal Advisors and Warrior Kings”:

    “For better and worse, the world is increasingly under the control of aggressive cultures — those that like to look outward, to expand, to compete and win. This is because, when cultures come in contact, the more aggressive ones naturally tend to take over.

    “How did we get into this situation? For most of the world, it began on the steppes of Asia, where the Indo-European culture was born. Those horse-riding nomads survived by expanding their herds of horses and cattle, mainly by stealing the herds and lands of others. They entered Europe about seven thousand years ago, reaching the Middle East and South Asia a little later. Before their arrival there was little or no warfare, slavery, monarchy, or domination of one class by another. The newcomers made serfs or slaves out of the people they found, the ones without horses, built walled cities where there had been peaceful settlements, and set out to expand into larger kingdoms or empires through war or trade.”

    The rest of that subheading discusses other characteristics of Indo-European culture which are relevant to the main focus of the book; nothing more about what came before.

    I had not heard that specific account of displacement of peaceful cultures by aggressive Indo-European cultures before I read this book, though I have a vague recollection of some popular attention about a dozen years ago of someone promoting the idea that prior to the present aggressive cultures in the world, there was a period of matriarchal societies during which people primarily cooperated rather than fought each other, and which was somehow overturned by development of the alphabet (“The Alphabet vs. The Goddess” by Leonard Shlain, thanks to Google’s magic). I wonder whether this account is another version of the end of that period.

    In Ms. Aron’s book there is one note pointing to a few paragraphs beyond the ones I quoted that refers to work of Riane Eisler: “The Chalice and the Blade” and “Sacred Pleasures”. A quick dip into Wikipedia’s article on Eisler indicates she probably is the source of the account I quoted, but I have not looked into it further.

    Your account features aggressive societies dominating human cultures far, far earlier than the period seven thousand years ago before which Aron/Eisler’s account claims human cultures were peaceful. Is there a conflict between the two accounts? I don’t know, and I’m wondering whether you do.

    I’ll admit that in the the period from 15 thousand years ago to seven thousand years ago, there is time for many shifts of dominant cultural styles, so perhaps both accounts could be accurate over moderately long time spans around their cited dates. And this might not do anything to undercut your hypothesis about the influence of the domestication of dogs. I just found it interesting and thought you might, also, if you were not already aware of it.

    1. Nobody knows for sure. But the fossil record and systematic anthropological research on stone-age tribes that survived into the 20th century argue powerfully against any sort of peaceful golden age. Slandering the Indo-Europeans was very fashionable twenty-odd years ago in liberal arts academia, but I don’t think there was ever a great deal of hard research behind it.

      The dawn raids thing is not something I made up; see Jared Diamond and Nicholas Wade, both of whom discuss it at some length, including the role of dawn raids in the domestication of dogs. Wade, furthermore, describes a phenomenon I hadn’t heard of before: Over the past 15,000 years, there has been steady gracilization of the human skull and skeleton. Basically, our bones and skulls have thinned out, very likely because we aren’t bashing one another’s brains out as much as we did in the Old Stone Age. It looks a great deal like we are far less violent today than at any earlier period in our evolutionary history, and there’s plenty of hard evidence to support it.

      My honest opinion of Eisler would not be charitable; she’s a lawyer and a sociologist and has no background in science of any consequence. I take her work with three or four sodium ions and that’s about it. I’m willing to entertain the whole peaceful goddess theory but she’s got a whole lot of bashed-in skulls to explain, skulls that go back thousands of years before the Indo-Europeans even existed.

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  13. Didn'tCatchYourName says:

    Nice summary, thanks for the post.

    There are potentially some other wrinkles to this story too. The possibility that dogs domesticated themselves would not contradict this story at all. Raymond Coppinger is one of the more famous proponents of this idea.

    Another point is that having largish herds of animals is a big step up from just hunting, and can be more accessible for groups that haven’t found the right place and conditions for farming. Dogs can dramatically improve your ability to gather, manage and protect grazing animals.

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