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Did Humans Train Dogs to Hunt Woolly Mammoths?

A new hypothesis suggests that our ancestors trained wolves to help them kill.
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(Photo: Mammut/Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Mammut/Wikimedia Commons)

Fido might be great at fetching tennis balls, or shotgun-wounded ducks, but one anthropologist is proposing that the earliest domesticated canines were trained to go after something substantially larger. The BFF relationship between humans and dogs may have budded back when our ancestors were trying to take down hulking woolly mammoths.

Archaeological digs have unearthed dozens of caches of the remains of woolly mammoths at the juncture of Europe and Asia, and they've been dated back to the late Stone Age—after anatomically modern humans reached the region.

Why would so many elephantoid relics end up in a specific location? We're going to go ahead and rule out mammoth zombie apocalypses. And orgies of attacks by carnivores seem unlikely, given that the carcasses weren't heavily gnawed upon. The evidence indicates that the animals were cut, filleted, skinned, and burned by early humans. Remains of the Gravettian culture, which used stones to make tools, have been found at the sites. Early humans' housing construction materials and art objects were crafted from mammoth hides, bones, and ivory. Human hunting pressures and natural climate change are thought to have pushed the species to extinction.

The domestication of dogs at this time could have helped our ancestors find, trap, and capture prey, then transport it and protect it from scavengers.

So it's widely thought that the animals that were preying on the mammoths were our forebears, probably with the aid of advanced projectile weapons, such as spear throwers and bows, which started to be developed around 71,000 years ago. But something has been conspicuously absent from the boneyards: evidence of advances in the hunting weapon technologies that would explain why the mammoth bodies really started piling up 45,000 years ago.

A new hypothesis described in Quaternary International paper posits that the mammoths in the graveyards were, indeed, the victims of early humans, and that those humans were capitalizing on another new hunting technology. Under this hypothesis, the hunting tools used were domesticated wolves—the so-called wolf-dogs found at the mammoth megasites and elsewhere don't appear to have been the direct ancestors of today's domesticated dogs.

Pat Shipman, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, analyzed data from eight mammoth megasites where at least 25 animals were found, dating back some 15,000 to 45,000 years ago. She concluded that the piles gradually grew over time as generations of the animals piled up. "Part of what's so fascinating is that, even if the kill sites are palimpsests, from many separate events, very large numbers of animals were killed repeatedly in the same place," she says. "This bespeaks a much improved technology."

The domestication of dogs at this time could have helped our ancestors find, trap, and capture prey, then transport it and protect it from scavengers, Shipman says.

"Since there's no obvious huge technological breakthrough at this time, working with dogs would explain why our ancestors were suddenly able to take mammoths," Shipman says. "The large numbers of dead mammoths in these sites would have reflected a real and serious pressure from a new combined dog-and-human predator."