I’m not an anthropologist, nor am I an archeologist. I have, however, lived with dogs most of my life and I’m happy to have counted two of them among my best friends. My hypothesis is that our evolution to civilization and all it has led to is thanks to the dog. This is an important concept to help us realize our place in the world. If our path to civilization was indeed started by the actions of another species, then once again we’re reminded of our place in the world, how fortunate and lucky we are and how much we have and always will rely on the planet and those we share it with.
In his book Guns,Germs and Steel Jared Diamond meticulously explores the reasons why the people of Eurasia came to dominate the rest of the world. His thesis (please forgive me such a condensed version of such a exhaustively argued book) goes back 13000 years, when humans first moved from a hunter-gatherer to a sedentary lifestyle with the domestication of plants and animals. Diamond argues that the abundance of natural plants and domesticable animals in and around the fertile crescent (modern day Iran) and the east-west orientation of Eurasia (climate does not vary as much) made expansion of the newly found food packages easier than in the north-south oriented Americas or Africa.
What Diamond doesn’t talk about is the timing and the catalyst for these changes from hunter-gathering to sedentary living. Humans have been in our present form as homo sapiens for around forty thousand years, so why did it take until only thirteen thousand years ago for us to start the transformation that ultimately led to civilization?
It’s possible that the catalyst was the dog. It’s archeologically known that dogs began living with humans just before we made the switch to sedentary living. To say that dogs were the first domesticated animals, I believe, is a little unfair to the dog, giving humans all the credit for our relationship. Indeed, it was the dog that, in all likelihood, initiated this relationship. As dogs became less fearful of humans and came closer and closer to human camps, dogs would’ve realized many benefits. Humans were excellent hunters and then, as now, could feed many others with their garbage. Humans had the use of fire for warmth and a three dog night certainly goes both ways.
As dogs made their way closer to humans and became more accepting of us as Alpha, it would’ve been easy to see that the benefits of living with dogs extended beyond the calories they could provide by merely eating them. As hunting companions, dogs were and are a natural. Even without training any human can tell when a dog picks up a scent. By simply following dogs, humans would be led to a potential kill that would be shared by all. All dogs love a good bone.
It’s recently been shown by Dr. David A Raichlin that humans and dogs share the production of endocanabinoids in their brains that give us a "runner's high." Humans and dogs have evolved in the same way to be excellent endurance runners. Cats are, by contrast, stalkers and pouncers. Cheetahs have the greatest speed of any land animal, but they can only sprint for thirty seconds. With humans and canines both being distance runners, this makes the hunting relationship possible, giving us both an edge over other species.
By ingratiating themselves into human lives, the presence of tame dogs would certainly have led humans to realize the possibility of domesticating other animals, both for work and food.
It’s possible that dogs also gave us the edge we needed to begin plant domestication. Even in our present day urban environment, the biggest challenges to a backyard vegetable garden are squirrels, raccoons, rabbits and birds, some of which will steal an entire backyard crop if left unguarded. Keeping a couple of dogs in the yard all day and night easily solves this problem. Dogs are carnivores, not interested in the crops, but they sure like chasing away all the critters. This wouldn’t have required any training, and as the first crops would have been very close to human camps and settlements it would’ve been a natural benefit to have dogs around. It’s possible that domesticated dogs allowed our first successful crops to be harvested, thus sending us on our way to civilization and the life we now know - which from then until now has been shared more and more intimately with our favorite companions.
All photos by David Morris.
End Note: The following picture is of a Saluki and her pups. Salukis, according to Wikipedia, are considered to be one of the oldest dog breeds in existence, with excavations of Sumerian Empire sites between 7000-6000 BC showing carvings and seals that look similar to the modern breed.
And here are a few more photos, just cuz.