Sunday, January 27, 2019

A Brief History of Wolves and Humans, Part 1 of 3

During the last Ice Age, say 20,000 years ago, wolves would have dogged herds of bison that migrated through the Mammoth Steppe, the ice-free grasslands between what is now Spain and Siberia. Those bison were larger than their descendants grazing today in Yellowstone. Bison were not the only large grazers drawn to the steppe’s grasses, willows, and other shrubs. Horses, moose, caribou, mountain goats, yaks, and woolly mammoths grazed there too. And wolves weren’t the only predator to follow the food. Humans did too. 

These two species, wolves (Canis lupus) and humans (Homo sapiens), would eventually have the largest ranges of any terrestrial animal. Though no one knows precisely when or how wolves and modern humans first met, their paths surely could have crossed and their futures intertwined on the Mammoth Steppe. 

Homo sapiens Dispersal Routes  Douka, O’Reilly,  Petraglia (CC BY-SA 4.0) 

So imagine, if you will, a group of humans watching those wolves bring down a bison 20,000 years ago. Our ancestors, their stomachs growling, may have been as hungry as the wolves that were working as an efficient team to inflict killing bites and bring the huge animal down. The observers may have puzzled over how to plunder some of their competitor’s bounty. But a group of humans couldn’t just move in and take a pack's kill. No matter how hungry, those humans were no match for wolves. 

But our ancestors were superior to wolves in some ways, according to Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter in the journal article “Coevolution of Humans and Canids.” We have greater cognitive ability. We can see better at longer distances because we stand taller than wolves. We can hit a target from a distance with weapons. Strengths such as those could have enabled our ancestors to assist wolves in hunting.

Ancient wolves hunted, as they do now, by sorting and sifting a herd to expose the animal that required less risk to kill. Once wolves cut their prey from the herd, the dangerous work of bringing a much bigger animal down began. And that’s where humans may have come in. With bigger brains, better vision over distance, and increasingly improved weapons, humans could have helped wolves kill prey. Working together, a meal was won using the strengths of both predators. The partners then shared the spoils. 

Even more than helping hungry humans fill their stomachs, wolves may have helped Homo sapiens survive as a species. Pat Shipman, an anthropologist, in her book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, also theorizes that humans partnered with wolves. But she adds a twist: that alliance gave our ancestors an unbeatable advantage over our two-legged competitor, Neanderthals.

Neanderthal sites in Europe (Via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scientists estimate that Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) dominated the European continent for more than 200,000 years. But after Homo sapiens reached Europe about 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals disappeared within 5,000 years, an eyeblink in geologic time. Some experts believe that climate change caused their demise. 

But Shipman presents an exciting alternative. “At that time, modern humans, Neanderthals and wolves were all top predators and competed to kill mammoths and other huge herbivores,” she told a reporter for The Guardian. “But then we formed an alliance with the wolf and that would have been the end for the Neanderthal.”

Shipman describes the alliance. “Early wolf-dogs would have tracked and harassed animals like elk and bison and would have hounded them until they tired. Then humans would have killed them with spears or bows and arrows.” In addition to helping with the hunt, wolf-dogs would have kept rival carnivores and scavengers from stealing the kill—just as wolves protect their kills today.

NPS photo

Both wolf-dogs and humans benefitted from this partnership, says Shipman. “This meant the dogs did not need to approach these large cornered animals to finish them off—often the most dangerous part of a hunt—while humans didn’t have to expend energy in tracking and wearing down prey. Dogs would have done that. Then we shared the meat. It was a win-win situation.”

These ancient wolf-dogs, Shipman told National Geographic, were not the same as modern wolves or modern dogs, were not a hybrid of wolves and dogs. These wolf-dogs had characteristics similar to those of today’s wolves, but were a distinct group. Large and built for hunting, they had big teeth and a great sense of smell and could run long and fast.

Shipman said she found no evidence that Neanderthals joined forces with wolves. “They continued to do things in the same old Neanderthal way as life got hard and times cold. And that lack of adaptability may have been a telling failure as [Homo sapiens] moved in. If you then add in wolf-dogs, Neanderthals were at a terrific disadvantage.” 

A partnership with wolf-dogs or wolves may have helped Homo sapiens win the evolutionary race. This partnership deepened as centuries passed and wolves became dogs. A commonly held view of that domestication that began 14,000 or more years ago is that humans chose the lazy, opportunistic, outcast-from-the-pack wolves that scavenged at human camps. 

But Schleidt and Shalter present an alternate—and intriguing—possibility of unrecorded history: “…scavenging wolves took the initiative and conned the affluent hunting and gathering humans into sharing their plenty, by pretending to be their obedient servants and hunting companions.” In other words, wolves may have chosen and trained us, much to their—and our—benefit. 

Oregon wolves photo by ODFW

Regardless of who trained whom, our history with wolves could have influenced our development significantly. Wolves and humans are similar in two important ways. Both survive by cooperating in group activities, such as raising young or hunting. Both share risks among group members. Schleidt and Shalter hypothesize that humans may have improved on those two survival skills by studying wolves. We could have, in a sense, apprenticed with wolves and then with our bigger brains and ability to develop technology, “Humans became better gatherers, better hunters, more successful fishermen, gardeners, astronauts, you name it.” Meanwhile, wolves, domesticated to dogs, began their long history as our hunting companions, guards, beasts of burden, playmates, and baby substitutes.

Another view of that wolf-to-dog transition is offered by Mark Derr in his book How the Dog Became the Dog. He does not see wolves as curs slinking around the edge of a human settlement scavenging for handouts and eventually tamed by intelligent humans. He writes that the partnership with wolves occurred while our ancestors were still hunter-gatherers, before they even had settlements. Certain nomadic humans and wolves met on the trail and were simply right for one another; were both sociable and curious. Those initial connections were no small feat for either party. The first wolves to take up with humans—to start our long, complicated history—were exceptional animals capable of making what Derr calls “a leap of friendship” with a creature from another species.

Photo by NPS

Once that leap was made, Homo sapiens and Canis lupus evolved together. The hunter-gatherers learned a few tricks from wolves, and returned the favor.  Early human hunters, writes Derr, were ambushers, while wolves were pursuit hunters.  Humans observed wolves and learned to hunt by stampeding prey instead of ambushing. This method produced more meat than humans could eat or carry away. They left the remains for wolves and scavengers. With each bite of meat, wolves were reminded of how they could benefit from human hunters. 

Derr’s image of two intelligent and resourceful creatures meeting on the trail, befriending one another, and evolving together is an essential addition to wolf-human history; how we view wolves historically is critical to how we treat them today.

Consider this scenario: You’re in the market for a dog and you go to a reputable breeder. She has two dogs from which you can choose. The dogs look similar. You ask about each. She points to one and says, “Oh, his lazy parents hung out by my trash pile. They were just scavengers.”  Then she points at the other and says, “This one’s parents were two of my best friends. They were intelligent, attentive, and curious.” Which animal would you take as one you will care for and love? Which might you reject or demonize? 

Our beneficial partnership with wolves unraveled as time moved on and hunter-gatherers became herders. No longer a nomad with a limitless horizon, a herder’s territory shrank to the boundaries of a small patch of land. A family survived on what that patch produced. Any animal that ate the herder’s sheep, goats, pigs, or cattle stole food from the family and reduced the family’s chances of survival. 

Those life-sustaining patches were often in wolf territory, where wolves did what they still do best: pick the easiest prey possible. And, as today, wolves paid the price for our infringing upon their territory. The killing of livestock changed our relationship with Canis lupus for the worse.

We came to hate wolves and treat them as unwanted and unacceptable competitors. Our history changed from a tale of two species partnering to a sad story of one species with powerful and plentiful arsenals—and few thoughts of long-term consequences—eradicating another. 

More on that in Part 2: The War on Wolves.

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands. His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves and the award-winning sequel, Deep into Yellowstone, are available signed from Rick or unsigned on Amazon in paper, eBook, or audio book formats.

Rick's new book, The Wilds of Aging, is the prequel to In the Temple of Wolves and is available signed or on Amazon.

Top of Post Photo of Alaskan wolf by NPS


  1. Dear Rick,
    RE:Shipman and the use of the word "theorizes."
    An unwilling veteran of certain styles of discussion regarding science, I urge replacement of the words "theory" and "theorize" with hypothesis and hypothesizing, no matter an argument concerning understanding.
    The latter words can and SHOULD be explained, differentiated from theory, which means hypotheses tested repeatedly and never found to be false.
    This word, unfortunately is confused in the public mind whenever any discussion involves supported factual statements.

    Your work is deeply appreciated, and I hope, has not been interrupted during this rather psychopathic moment in U S history.

    A note: Japanese culture DID absorb original Jomon and Ainu worldviews -themselves carried from our most ancient perceptions, still extant in Siberia and those who dispersed to North America. Kamui or kami, for instance referred to factors witnessed in the natural world as well as in real mental processes involving memory and associative activity in the brain. The wolf is still called by the foreshortened word rendered phonetically as Okami.
    Somewhere around & before 2500 years ago, the Korean peoples who developed the agricultural society, influenced by China, came, supplanting the hunter-gatherer Ainu. These immigrants did NOT have an ancient reverence for Wolf, but, like present Korea, had regarded the wolf as inimical. While they retain some of the animistic recognition and respect for other lives of the East and North Asian cultures, but agriculturists, feudal societies, and dense human populations have little tolerance for wolves.)
    Human eradication of animals affecting their societies can be illustrated by India. A caste system is essentially feudal, with the political/military maintaining stable territory through "protection." Nobles validate their purpose this way. Mass beating-the-bushes to surround and kill predators there managed a pre-poison wolf eradication (as you know, wolves raise offspring in such a way as they are vulnerable , having a sedentary hub for about 7 months). Modern India now attempting to protect wildlife has lost the necessary cultural practice of constant monitoring of our own very young, leading to some opportunistic taking by canids.

  2. Tracing a similar transition from reverence and coexistence in Europe, there are indications that the strongest precipitating factor there, was the dense agricultural populations of the Middle Ages, when communicable disease plagues would kill so many that survivors did not have the capacity to bury them, leaving the wolf to carry out its ancient ecological job (as you may know, in certain seasons, wolves have been carrion-dependent for up to 85% of their calories). Now this looks pretty scary to a species as obligate social as ourselves. That's when that feudal culture became averse to the wolf.
    The pastoralist religion which aggressively took over from the more ancient European ones that recognized less discrimination of humans and other animals, pretty much since Charlemagne, also had that feudal tradition of regarding its adherents, like peasants, as "sheep", had long identified the wolf as competitor, taker,, and therefore antithetical.
    Central Asian goat/sheep herders had long had that outlook; the firsst "falconers" actually trained female eagles to attack wolves (and the wolves defended themselves well enough to increase the enmity of the trainers even more). As you know, canids must be territorial - it's an evolutionary habit that even influenced the Kamui descriptions involving familiarity and place. Dog-keeping people arising in good wolf habitat encountered conflict,and surely making antiwolf breeding a priority.

    Upshot - we tend to be most determined to follow the easy path of killing, rather than retaining obvious safety practices for domestics and offspring. This befits our social primate evolution of vengefulness. I won't go further into comparative cognition here, although I have studied wolves and other animals, including ourselves, and prefer the unpersecuted return of wolves.