Domestication of the wolf

Wolf tracks and bones dating as far back as 40,000 years have been discovered in territories occupied by humans in Europe, though the use of wolves by Homo sapiens is not depicted in prehistoric cave drawings.

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Making an ally of the wolf

At that time, humans were still nomads who hunted migrating animals. Climate changes – the end of an ice age and sudden atmospheric warming – around 10,000 years ago, marking the transition between the Holocene and Pleistocene epochs, caused forests to be replaced by tundra and consequently the fall in mammoth and bison numbers in favour of deer and boar. This smaller prey caused humans to develop new weapons and hunting techniques. Humans found themselves in competition with wolves, which also hunted these animals, deploying the same pack hunting methods using beaters.


Humans naturally tried to ally themselves with the wolf for hunting purposes, attempting to tame an animal for the first time, well before they gave up their nomadic lifestyle and started to keep livestock. Primitive dogs were therefore unquestionably hunting dogs rather than herders.

According to Ray Coppinger – an evolutionary biologist in the United States known for his work on working dogs – some wolves accepted human advances in return for food, passing on this new behavioural trait to their offspring. Other scientists propose that prehistoric humans throughout the world patiently bred the most docile wolves, producing a more playful, submissive animal in a number of generations.


From taming to domestication

The domestication of wolves went hand in hand with the transition from predation to production in human societies. This started with individual wolves, which meant that a new wolf had to be tamed from scratch when a tame wolf died. Nevertheless, this was the first vital step in the domestication of a species. The second step was controlled breeding.


Based on the many domestication centres uncovered at archaeological sites, it would appear that wolves started being domesticated in Asia, although this was not restricted to a single place and it did not happen overnight.

Several attempts must have been undertaken around the world to domesticate young cubs from various groups in their first months of life. This would have been considered a success if they subsequently rejected their wild relatives. Humans were able to take advantage of the natural aptitude of cubs to submit to pack hierarchy. While some domesticated females might have been fertilised by wild wolves from time to time, the cubs were always raised close to humans, which ensured that they were also inculcated and so unlikely to return to the wild.

From wolf to dog

As with any animal, the domestication of the wolf was accompanied by several morphological and behavioural changes, in accordance with their evolution. For example, changes observed in skeletons show that there was a kind of juvenile regression, known as paedomorphosis, as if, with the passing generations, adult wolves retained certain immature behaviours and traits, including smaller size, shortened nose, deeper stop, barking, whining and a playful disposition. This has led some archaeozoologists to posit that the dog is still undergoing speciation, forever adolescent and highly dependent on humans for its survival.

Paradoxically, this is accompanied by a shortening of the growth stage, which means that puppies reach puberty sooner and are therefore capable of reproducing at an early age. This explains why modern small breeds reach puberty earlier than large breeds, and why all domesticated dogs reach puberty earlier than wolves, in which it occurs around two years of age. At the same time, the teeth were adapted to an omnivorous rather than a carnivorous diet, because domesticated dogs could make do with table scraps rather than needing to hunt for food.

This type of degeneration due to domestication is also seen in most other domesticated species, including the pig (shortening of the snout) and even the fox, which can assume puppy behaviour after just twenty or so generations. Domestication thus appears to run counter to evolution, unless humans are regarded as an integral part of nature similar to a method of natural selection.


Wild dogs


By examining wild fauna, we can identify at least four modern types of wild dog:


The dhole, also known as the Asiatic Wild Dog, is especially well adapted to very dense forests. It lives in groups of up to 40 individuals.


- Dingo: the only placental mammal (except for humans) found in Australia in the 18th century when Europeans arrived.
- Dhole: an Asian dog that is especially well suited to very dense forests.
- African wild dog: an African dog that lives in the wooded savannah of the south Sahara and eastern Africa.
- New Guinea singing dog, a native dog of New Guinea that sings but does not bark.

Studies of these wild dogs show that docility is not due to any immaturity, as evoked for the wolf, but to a strong capacity for appropriating the human environment. According to these studies, the same goes for stray dogs – global population estimated at more than 300 million – that live close to humans in rural and urban areas. In poor countries, these rather ragtag dogs are tolerated because they act as garbage collectors and early warning systems with regard to natural disasters, wild animals and visitors in general.

Based on archaeological excavations, the first dogs appear to have been tamed in Eurasia and the Middle East no later than 12,000 years ago. At the same time, the bones of a missing link between wolf and dog have never been found (a wolf skull was positioned at each entrance to the cave in Le Lazaret in southern France, which has been dated at 12,500 BC). Bearing in mind the various canine morphotypes that have been unearthed (light dogs in Mesopotamia, molossoids in northern Europe) it is very possible that wild dogs prowling around human encampments gradually got used to humans in places far from each other at very different times. Humans would have domesticated these animals by selecting the least timid individuals and taking advantage of the socialisation capacities of the young.


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