A recent advance in scientific techniques has provided an unexpected insight into our ancient past, and a suggestion that our human heritage may not be totally derived from our primate ancestors.
Newly developed techniques of DNA analysis are helpful not only for solving crimes and learning about diseases, but also for assessing the genetic relationships between various species, and tracing their evolution from common ancestors. Most of this work has been based on comparisons of mitochondrial DNA, a specific form of genetic material that is inherited solely or largely from the mother. Mutations leave a tell-tale signature in the descendants of the female in which the mutation originally occurred. When a similar mutation is found in two species, it can be assumed that they descended from a common ancestor, and by making assumptions about the rate of such mutations, researchers can also estimate how long it has been since the two species split off from their common ancestor.
It was on the basis of such an analysis that Carles Vila and colleagues of the University of California at Los Angeles reported in 1997 that all domestic dogs were descended from the wolf, rather than from coyotes or other wild canids, as had been suggested for some breeds of dogs. In an article in the prestigious journal Science, they also calculated that the amount of genetic change in dogs indicated they had separated from wild wolves as much as 135,000 years ago. The biological separation of dogs from wolves is almost certainly associated with the domestication of dogs by humans. Canadian zoologist Susan Crockford views the process of domestication not as one of the simple capture and taming of wild animals, but one that involved a complex set of biological and behavioural changes based in hormone physiology, which accompanied the association of dogs with human groups. It was this process that created the new species Canis familiaris.
Until the report of Vila, et al., archaeologists had been able to trace the domestication of dogs back only about 14,000 years, to the period immediately after the end of the last Ice Age and just before the invention of agriculture. Their evidence was not from the distinctive forms of skeleton that characterize the great variety of modern dogs, but from the deliberate burial of canids.
In both Eurasia and North America, archaeologists encountered instances of dogs that had been buried beneath the floors of huts or tent-camps, curled in sleeping postures, and covered with the red ochre that people of the time used in human burials, or in some cases interred directly with humans. These buried canids were obviously not hunted prey, but family friends whose continued presence was desired.
The people who buried these dogs 14,000 years ago were, biologically and culturally, fully modern humans. Within a few thousand years they would be domesticating sheep and cattle, learning to cultivate wheat, rice and maize, and laying the foundations for the great cities of the ancient world. The fact that they shared their camps with dogs is not a surprise. In return for butchering-scraps, these animals would have provided invaluable help in the hunt, as well as serving as camp sentinels and even protectors. In Siberia they were soon pulling sleds, and elsewhere must have carried the packs of their nomadic owners.
But an altogether different picture emerges if the DNA evidence is correct and dogs were domesticated in much more ancient times. It would be difficult to argue that the people of 135,000 years ago were fully human. At that time, our small-brained and low-browed predecessors known as Homo erectus had barely evolved into various archaic forms of Homo sapiens. Some of these resembled the Neanderthals beloved of cartoonists, although soon a more modern-looking form would begin to appear in parts of Africa.
All of these early humans seem to have been effective hunters and scavengers, had control of fire, and possessed enough skill in sewing clothing and building shelters to allow them to live in relatively cold climates. They carved crude tools from wood, bone and antler, using chipped-stone knives and scrapers. But there is little evidence of further accomplishment....There is even a question about whether these early humans possessed an effective language, or whether they needed one. The archaeological remains show that groups were small and mobile, probably organized in a way which was not much more socially complex than a chimpanzee band.
If the DNA evidence is correct, it is creatures such as these that domesticated the wolf and turned it into a dog. People may have stolen wolf pups from their dens to play with or just to keep for the enjoyment of watching them. Like the young animals that are brought home as toys by tribal hunting peoples today, most of these pups probably had short lives. As Susan Crockford argues, some may have possessed the hormonal characteristics that produced dog-like behaviour and would have adapted to life in a human camp. Those that survived to adulthood and produced pups of their own may have been the first ancestors of the dogs, which have lived with humans ever since.
This was a new development in biology and history. For the first time, hunting parties and camp groups composed of two distinct species began to spread across the landscapes of the world. It makes little sense to think of this process as one in which early humans ''domesticated'' the wolf. Aside from the human use of simple tools, there was probably little difference in the complexity of hunting patterns or social organization between early human bands and wolf packs. If humans domesticated the wolf, is it not equally probable that wolves domesticated humans? Were the changes that developed between wolf and dog any more significant than those that occurred to early humans through their constant association with canids?
In a recent article in the magazine Discovering Archaeology, biologist Wolfgang Schleidt notes the apparent temporal coincidence between the emergence of humankind and of dogkind, and suggests that, ''This intertwining process of hominization and caninisation suggests co-evolution.'' Schleidt proposes a specific scenario, involving humans emulating wolves and eventually co-opting wolves in hunting the migratory reindeer of Ice Age Eurasia. Yet a much broader view of the interactions between humans and wolves, and the results of these interactions, might be envisaged.
In comparing ourselves with other animals, we think of intelligence, self-awareness, the ability to conceive new ideas and foresee long-term consequences as traits that are uniquely human. In the animal world these traits are most clearly mirrored by the great apes, and in a lesser way by our other primate relatives. But are all the characteristics that we think of as making us human inherited only from our primate ancestry? What about qualities such as patience, endurance, unthinking loyalty, co-operation, devotion to family and social group? What of our abilities to organize co-operative activities based on a finely tuned sense of social hierarchy and mutual responsibilities?
Wolves seem to do these things significantly better than humans, and at least as well as most non-human primates. The biologists who have made their life-work the study of wolves describe an animal that lives in a world of complex social hierarchies, with well-organized co-operative work patterns, finely tuned communication skills, and outbreaks of spontaneous joy. Together with their superior ability to scent prey, to run more swiftly and endure longer than humans, these social qualities are the basis of their successful adaptation as hunters. And these are also qualities that would have been useful in the environment that saw our early ancestors turn into true humans.
Given the situation of hunting bands composed of early humans and their wolf-dog companions, animals with complementary character and abilities, can we be sure that the process of domestication acted in only one direction? The DNA evidence suggests that these animals lived and worked together for some 5000 human generations before the emergence of societies and cultures that we can describe as fully human. In the course of these generations. wolves were transformed into dogs, but did their dogs also transform ancient people into humans? Would archaic humans have developed into such a successful and dominant species if we had not had the opportunity to learn from, imitate and absorb into our cultures the traits and abilities of the wolves with whom we lived?
Hints of our unacknowledged debt to wolves may perhaps be found in the cultural memories of human societies....Romulus, Remus and a continuing series of feral children are said to have been raised by wolves. These children are never saved and nurtured by bears or tigers, badgers or wolverines, but always by wolves. Do we assign this role to wolves as a vague recollection of our special and ancient relationship with the species, or perhaps through recognition of our common links through the dog?
If so, how do we explain the fear and loathing that seem to be the central emotions that most human societies generate toward the wolf? Biologists assure us that, despite the tales of slavering packs pursuing hapless troika-drivers across the Russian steppe, or of Canadian pioneers passing winter nights in trees surrounded by leaping and snarling wolves, wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare. Bears and large cats do kill people regularly; coyotes and cougars and feral dogs kill many more livestock than do wolves; yet it is the wolf that attracts our hatred and our fear. Can we see in this another hint of our special ties to the wolf? As loathed villain and as rescuer of lost children, the wolf stands apart from all other animals in human consciousness, and perhaps in this we may detect a deeply felt knowledge of our ancient kinship....
The view of wolves as fellow-beings is finally beginning to displace our society's traditional picture of the animals as unthinking, robotic killers to be exterminated wherever possible. The change is in part the result of scientific studies of wolf behaviour that were undertaken over the past few decades. From these studies we learned of the complex social organization of wolf packs, and of their efficient rather than wasteful use of the prey species on which their continued existence depends.
More importantly, over the past century there has been a growing recognition that non-human animals think, have emotions and feel pain. It is now hard to believe that until recently scientists and philosophers of Western cultures portrayed other animals as unthinking and unfeeling automatons. Grounded in the biblical command to have dominion over non-human creatures, this attitude must have been perpetuated as a practical and convenient belief in rural societies where most people were in direct daily contact with the killing, confinement and coercion of animals.
In recognizing that animals such as wolves do have emotions -- perhaps not as complex as ours, but probably as deeply felt and as powerful influences on their behaviour -- we begin to understand the mechanisms that are at work to bond packs into long-term social units of cooperative hunters, and which allow them to be such effective and efficient users of their environment. Having learned to what extent wolves resemble humans in their social behaviour and their capacity to form emotional bonds, we may begin to wonder how much of this similarity is due to the shared lives of our species over thousands of generations during a period when humans were first learning to be human. Biologist Wolfgang Schleidt suggests that ''wolves and dogs, with their remarkable capacity for co-operation and loyalty, were both role models and companions on this long trek toward humanity.''
If the arguments from prehistory are correct, we might begin to think of wolves not as wilderness neighbours, but as our backwoods cousins. And with this recognition of kinship, there comes a responsibility to protect our distant relatives in the forest. Our species has persecuted and continues to persecute wolves for entirely irrational reasons. In view of the debt that humanity may owe to wolves, perhaps for our very existence as the dominant species on earth, the time has come to make amends.