Emerging from the deep shade of a sandstone outcropping that shelters their flock, three skinny black-and-white dogs warily approach pieces of cantaloupe rind thrown to entice them into the open, sniff, then begin eating, their eyes fixed on the strange Anglos talking with their Navajo owner. I am amazed at how much they resemble a photograph I recently saw of the Basketmaker dog, a rare, complete mummy dating from the time of Christ that was found at White Dog Cave, not far from this hogan, in 1921 and resides at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University. Travelling through the Navajo Reservation with Hal Black, a zoologist from Brigham Young University, I will observe a dozen more of the dogs, some with buff coats and grey muzzles, but of the same physical type as the 2,000-year-old mummy, as if in this country of wind-blasted sandstone mesas there is no divide between the quick and the dead.
Bred to no particular purpose, the Navajo dogs, that range from fifteen to sixty pounds, live with flocks of sheep and goats they protect from coyotes, other dogs, horses, mules, even strange people who come too close. Most are born among the sheep and goats they accept as members of their own pack, but others are adopted as barely weaned puppies from the ranks of feral dogs (who have severed their bond to humans and grown to fear and avoid them) living around the reservation’s garbage dumps or found on the roadside. I recognize many of them as mutts from modern breeds and dismiss them, not because they are less good as sheep guards, but because I am fascinated with the ancient ones. The latter remind me of the feists and curs of the American South, that are generally believed to descend from the dogs of Native Americans, mixed with those of seventeenth and eighteenth century colonists. It seems incredible that the type could persist for so long without change despite exposure to countless other dogs and I would like to believe that my eyes have deceived me, the way I know when my male Catahoula leopard dog sleeps on his back in a contorted pose resembling the dog from Pompeii zapped in the ash of Vesuvius that the relationship is purely visual.
Back home in Miami Beach, I check with Stanley J. Olsen of the University of Arizona, one of the world’s foremost experts on dog palaeontology and a man given to scepticism regarding claims that certain dogs represent ancient breeds. “Oh, yes,” he says, “those little dogs on the reservation – they look just like the Basketmaker mummy.” He agrees that a comparative study would be interesting, but for now the techniques of genetic analysis are not refined enough to determine whether the sheepdogs are heir to the animals of people who lived in that land of buttes and mesas before the Navajo themselves arrived.
Around the world, there are dogs that have apparently remained unchanged for thousands of years – bred true to type – often on islands where ancient wanderers dropped them, in jungles, parts of the Arctic or relatively remote desert environments like that of the American Southwest, where for long periods they would have come into contact with other dogs rarely, if at all, but also in regions where people have retained a strong tradition of using certain kinds of dog. Some researchers even speculate that many of these dogs are derived from an ur-dog domesticated 10,000 or more years ago from the Indian wolf and carried around the world with migrating bands of people, mixing along the way with indigenous wolves. In its effort to account for the affinities in behaviour and appearance among these unique dogs, this theory oversimplifies the process of domestication and dispersal. Foremost among them and closest to the wolf in appearance and behaviour is the dingo, that first appeared in Australia some 4,000 years ago when seafarers from Indonesia or Southeast Asia beached their dugouts to trade with the Aborigines and lost some of the dogs they carried for companionship and food. The dogs reverted to the wild and became the top carnivore, next to humans, on that island continent, joined over the centuries by other travellers who went walkabout. Although some Aboriginal tribes tamed puppies and kept them as hunting aides and camp guardians, as well as food in times of famine, the dogs bred in the wild and in general behaved so differently from those of European explorers arriving in the eighteenth century that they were called dingoes and declared a separate species.
The New Guinea singing dog, now nearly extinct on its home island, is said to be a dingo of sorts, as are the pariahs, the ownerless dogs who live around towns and villages in Southeast Asia and even some of the Native American dogs. A number of Middle Eastern and African dogs are similar in appearance, but probably domesticated from different subspecies of wolf. The Canaan dog from Palestine was a pariah used to guard and herd sheep until the 1930s, when Rudolphina Menzel, an expert on dogs who, with her husband Rudolph, had fled Hitler’s Germany, consolidated it into a breed for use as a messenger, tracker, search-and-rescue dog and guide dog. Among the !Kung San bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, those who hunt with dogs – medium-sized buff or piebald animals – bring home 75 percent of the animal protein their band consumes. Pygmies use little hounds (refined by English and American breeders, they are called basenjis) to hunt birds and other game. On Sicily and in Portugal are graceful prick-eared hounds that appear to have changed little for several millennia.
In fact, dogs like these are sought by collectors in increasing numbers, because they are deemed “primitive” – more quintessentially dog in their abilities and demeanour than the “refined” European and English breeds: pointers, retrievers, toys, terriers and other denizens of the show ring. Even the various curs and feists of the American South and the Arctic sled dogs are often called “primitive.” Despite all the rationalizations and examples used to support the distinction, it primarily refers to dogs that are more generalist in their talents, independent in their habits and relatively free of disabling genetic defects compared with those selectively bred for specific traits, size, colour and specialized talents like pointing. Since many are country dogs, they are deemed exotic or rare, when taken as pets. I prefer the word “basic” to “primitive”, because it bears less cultural baggage. It also recognizes that types like the Alaskan husky and curs have, over the years, received infusions of new blood without losing their distinguishing characteristics. Huskies retain their tough feet, somewhat wolfish appearance and habits as sled dogs despite the presence in their midst of individuals with lop ears and thinnish coats. Coming in a range of sizes and colours, curs are identified by their ability as herders, hunters that trail and tree, occasional pointers and guardians, as well as by their general deep-chested build.
In Australia, dingoes are currently hybridizing freely with domestic dogs, raising concerns that they will become extinct. Hybridization occurs most frequently in areas where human predation has created a shortage of available dingo mates, meaning humans can help reverse the process by ending the senseless slaughter. To the dingo, however, hybridization has always offered life, not extinction. In the centuries before Anglo settlement, it interbred, especially along the coast, with dogs arriving, as its forebears had, with Southeast Asian and Indonesian traders. Like those early hybrids, many of the ones produced today are virtually indistinguishable from dingoes into whose society they are born. The dingo phenotype and culture prevail, leading me to conclude that the obsession with curbing interbreeding has less to do with preserving the dingo than with maintaining old notions of blood purity. Such a view is heretical in the world of wildlife protection, but the dingo is a dog that went wild because of the circumstances in which humans left it; if it changes in relationship to new human-made conditions, it is simply being a dog.
Whatever terms we use, the attempt to draw clear distinctions between basic and pedigree show dogs or even between breeds, reflects our continuing attempts to understand the animal that shares our lives more intimately than any other. Under funded and assigned low priority by palaeontologists, archaeologists and evolutionary biologists, whose efforts are directed more toward examining issues relating to humans, extinct and endangered species, and those efforts proceed in fits and starts, like a dog trying to fix on a cold trail.
Whether read on cuneiform tablets, scrolls, bas-reliefs, paintings, books, film, or the flickering pixels of cyberspace, divined from bones or mummified flesh, deciphered from the genes, what we know remains an unstable mixture of fact and received wisdom, which is too often accepted as revealed truth. As biologists decipher the dog genome – the genetic blueprint that makes it unique – archaeologists open new sites and behaviourists deepen their knowledge of dog and wolf behaviour, the story will doubtless become, paradoxically, more clear and complex. On a practical level, I hope that this knowledge will lead to a revolution in breeding that will bring an end to the production of mutant animals fit only to serve human vanity and create animals of good health and temperament, sound minds and abundant talent. Bred to type, like the sheep guards of the Navajo, the curs and huskies, these dogs would show considerably more variability than is allowed in the narrowly prescribed physical standards of show dogs, like the Pekingese, malamute or any of the other 140 or so pure breeds recognised by the American Kennel Club.
Enough has been learned over the past three decades to allow concerned breeders and trainers to make dramatic improvements, but more must be done. The chief drawback to that reform, one expert told me, lies in inadequate dissemination of the information at hand and continued reliance on folk wisdom that views inheritance and behaviour in overly simplistic terms. I would add to that list an unwillingness among many people involved with dogs to change their ways.
What we know is this: The dog is a subspecies of the wolf altered over more than fifteen millennia by selective breeding. Analyses of mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only from the mother, have shown no distinctive differences between wolf and dog or even between breeds of dog, no matter their shape and size. (DNA fingerprinting does allow scientists to identify individual dogs, but not their breed or type.) The New Guinea singing dog and dingo appear to have one or two distinctive genetic markers, perhaps due to thousands of years of island isolation, but they are not significant enough to distinguish them as separate species. Contrary to theories set forth in the past and still repeated in some quarters, no contributions were made by jackals, coyotes, foxes, otters or bears, nor were there any ur-dogs that appeared suddenly on the earth and then vanished into the bosom of domesticity, like a dog Adam and Eve. Our dog is formally Canis lupus familiaris.
Canis means “dog” in Latin, so the dog is technically a domesticated wolf, which is a wild dog. Canis lupus is one of thirty-four living species grouped in Canidae (the dog family) of the order Carnivora, which also includes Ursidae (bears), Mustelidae (weasels), Procyonidae (raccoons), Ailuropoda (pandas), Otariidae (sea lions), Odobenidae (walruses), Phocidae (seals), Felidae (cats), Viverridae (civets) and Hyaenidae (hyenas).
Collectively the carnivores are intelligent animals that care for their young and possess relatively large dogs for killing, carnassials – the first molar on the lower jaw and last premolar on the upper – for rending flesh and molars for crushing bones. They have four to five toes with claws that are retractable in the cats, except the cheetah, and not in the others. All lack the opposable thumb, even those with five digits. In dogs, the fifth toe of the fore and hind feet has become a dewclaw, although some breeds have no rear dewclaws while others, especially among the French sheepdogs and some yellow blackmouth curs, have two on each foot. Dogs and cats walk on their toes; bears on their heels and soles. Classification, being a less than exact science, some of these carnivores are omnivores and one, the panda, eats bamboo. Still, among this group are the top terrestrial predators, next to humans – the only natural enemy of many of them.
Canids – members of the dog family – began to distinguish themselves from other mammalian carnivores some 50 to 60 million years ago, almost immediately upon their first appearance following extinction of the dinosaurs. These animals were miacids – ferret – to fox-size creatures with a longer body than legs, tails and those mashing and cutting teeth. Miacids gave way to larger creodants with five distinctive toes. Around 15 million years ago in the Western Hemisphere, another fox like animal, Hesperocyon, appeared, walking on its toes. From there the line passes through Leptocyon, believed to be the common ancestor of wolves and foxes. Canis lepophagus, whose remains were found in Texas and dated to the Pliocene some 5 million years ago, might be the forerunner of the wolf like canids. From their origins in what is now North America, early canids migrated to Eurasia, Africa and South America.
By the best current estimates, 7 to 10 million years ago the dog family began to divide into the broad groupings we see today: the wolf like canids, South American canids, red foxes, and miscellaneous. The foxes, miscellaneous and South American canids have different numbers of chromosomes from the wolf like canids and do not figure in the evolution of the wolf, although the South American bushdog (Speothos venaticus), which dives under water, has been domesticated occasionally.
The wolf like canids have seventy-eight chromosomes and could conceivably all be classed as Canis, but two are not: Lyacon pictus, the African wild dog, with four toes front and back and the highly variable markings usually associated with domestic dogs and Cuon alpinus, the dhole or red “dog”, native to Asia and India. Those grouped in Canis are the wolf (lupus); golden jackal (aureus); side-striped jackal (adustus); black-backed jackal (mesomelas); Simien jackal or Ethiopian wolf (simensis); coyote (latrans) and red wolf (rufus). The huge dire wolf (Canis dirus) rose and fell during the Pleistocene, while its cousin, the gray wolf, flourished.
Although the wolf, coyote and golden jackal probably diverged 3 to 4 million years ago, they can mate and produce fertile offspring. Largely because of its geographic isolation in eastern and southern Africa, the African wild dog (also known as the Cape hunting dog) went its separate way about the same time. All of these canids have strong jaws and the relatively big teeth typical of carnivores, as Little Red Riding Hood discovered! Their legs are adapted for loping or trotting long distances, with the exception of the mutant domestic dog breeds and running for shorter periods with bursts of speed. As a general rule, they show a marked propensity toward pack or group behaviour. They also communicate vocally through a variety of calls, physical posturing and scent marking. Their olfactory abilities are superb, as is their hearing. They have excellent peripheral and night vision, as well as high sensitivity to light and movement. Dogs, wolves and perhaps other canids, see fairly well at a distance and discern colours, although not as acutely as humans.
Observers have long argued that wolves and dogs possess some sort of extrasensory perception that allows them to sense the moods of humans or prey, to locate someone at a distance, to anticipate the arrival of a master, pack member or quarry, to discern when they are nearing their destination, even if riding in a closed car. Of particular fascination to a number of experts is “psi trailing,” the apparent ability of an animal to find its owners after they have left it and moved to a place it has never been before. ESP is, of course, a term human’s use for any psychic phenomenon beyond their explanation and so its use with canids is probably irrelevant. It is fairer to say that canids live in a perceptual universe far different from ours and that we are unaware of many of the olfactory and auditory signals they detect. Both dogs and wolves respond to higher frequencies than humans; wolves reportedly can hear sounds on the Alaska tundra from a distance up to ten miles.
No one knows how many subspecies of Canis lupus have existed. Estimates range from twenty to forty. Part of the difficulty, as with defining breeds of dogs, is that wolves are highly variable in size, coloration and behaviour. In addition, heavy human predation has seriously diminished their numbers worldwide, making it difficult even to determine with accuracy what has been lost. Due primarily to heat and parasites, wolves tend to be smaller in southern than in northern latitudes, so that the little Arabian wolf and the red wolf are in the forty-five-pound range, while the Arctic grey wolf regularly exceeds one hundred pounds. The Arabian wolf seems to howl rarely and generally hunts alone or in small groups. Indeed, many of these subspecies have been studied little; more than a few cannot be examined at all, except in their remains. Thus, we will probably never know how the behaviour of specific wolves is reflected in the dogs derived from them millennia ago.
Fossil evidence from Zhoukoudian, China, shows Homo erectus pekinensis, the elusive Peking or Beijing man, was sharing time and space, food and shelter with wolves (generally classed as Canis lupus variabilis) at least 500,000 years ago. Remains of Homo erectus and wolves have also turned up in Boxgrove in Kent, England, dated to 400,000 years ago and Lazeret in the south of France, 150,000 years ago. It is more likely that throughout the Northern Hemisphere these precursors of modern humans and wolves lived and hunted in close proximity than that these three sites represent an accidental accumulation of old bones. Beyond that, we have only questions and surmise, especially since we know less about our prehistoric forebears than we do about wolves.
Relatively short, with slightly smaller brains, flatter skulls, more prominent brow ridges and a noticeably more protruding jaw holding larger teeth than humans, these hominids were probably semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who colonized much of the world. They had stone tools to help them butcher their kill for cooking. The fossils found at Zhoukoudian indicate that the brains of their compatriots – or competitors – made up at least part of their diet. In the main, however, early hominids were omnivores, deriving an estimated 60 to 80 percent of their calories and protein from nuts and vegetables.
Even estimated dates are in dispute, however, so it seems fair to say that sometime around 200,000 years ago archaic humans, Homo sapiens, emerged in Africa. They possessed significantly larger brains than Homo erectus, whom they supplanted and made superior stone weapons with which they hunted big game. Whether Neanderthals, who emerged around 100,000 years ago and vanished 70,000 years later, were a separate human species or a stocky, heavy-browed, big-brained cousin of Homo sapiens – the way the dog is a subspecies of wolf – is not yet clear, but these powerful Ice Age hunters were also found throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. Around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, slightly different beings arose, modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) with brains wired for invention and the drive to remake the world. More precisely, our ancestors showed up with a more highly developed and enlarged basal neocortex (believed to be involved in ethical and social behaviour, as well as formation of personality) than their predecessors.
As humans colonized the world, some of them became – especially in the Arctic, Patagonia, the Great Plains of North America and steppes of Asia – predominately carnivorous in response to ecological conditions. (The polar bear, which evolved as a separate species 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, shows a similar adaptation, becoming the only solely carnivorous and semi-aquatic bear.) In the main, however, they moved in small bands of approximately twenty-five men, women, and children, taking most of their calories from plants and nuts.
From my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember portrayals of early humans as people terrified of the world and its animals, living a marginal existence on the edge of death by starvation, exposure or assault. Since then, we have come increasingly to perceive those ancient hunters and gatherers as having had a rich culture and diet. They moved through their world as easily as we navigate ours, only in that world the boundary between human camps and nature was highly porous. Hunter-gatherers viewed animals as beings with their own habits, cultures and souls, making many of them totemic figures, the way we invest in material objects like cars and houses or famous humans with special status, not to mention God in his various guises. Early humans tamed nearly every animal they came into contact with and that impulse to collect animals has remained as strong as the related impulse to hunt them; in fact, it is no mistake that some of the most ardent conservationists have been hunters, which is not the same as saying that all hunters are conservationists – far too many of them are not.
Even with weapons, hominids and early humans were not natural hunters and so they would have scavenged carnivores’ kills and also looked to them for guidance on how to bring down their own meat. They turned not to the bear, another omnivore, nor to the cats, but to animals – wolves and African wild dogs – that, like them, hunted in packs to bring down game much larger than themselves. Humans wanted those heavy animals for the same reasons wolves did: They provided enough meat to feed the group for days.
Wolves and humans do not talk the same language – I assume, as do many enlightened naturalists, that all animals possess language, defined here as the ability to communicate through verbal or visual signs – but they understand each other to a remarkable degree. By the look on their faces, the tilt of their ears, position of their tails and bodies, wolves convey a great deal about their mood and intent that humans can interpret. Like humans, wolves possess associative minds and wanderlust. The social structure of their packs and their habits of nurturing and educating their young parallel those of human groups.
People adopted wolf puppies that were orphaned or that they or their children lifted from dens during explorations. Women nursed the youngest of those puppies the way they suckled their own children. Not surprisingly, some of those hand-raised wolves hung around their adoptive family, becoming companions to the children or even the young men who played with them and learned to hunt with them. The tamed wolf took to the village as its home, alerting people to danger, the way it warned its own kind if a stranger approached the den – by barking. In some regions – for this process was occurring in many parts of the world – when food got scarce or if a spirit needed to be propitiated, people sacrificed and ate the wolf; if it proved a foul-tempered ingrate, it was driven off or killed.
The wolves who became the tamest and lingered around the camps were those that were in personality the most social and least fearful. Mating with each other and free-ranging animals living near the camps, the tamed wolves produced, over time, a population with a high overall level of sociability, a group of fellow-travelling wolves. Under no breeding pressure from humans, allowed to come and go as they wished, they retained their wolfish look and demeanour.
Near the end of the Palaeolithic (Old Stone) Age, our direct forebears developed better, sharper stone blades, the atlatl for throwing spears and around 18,000 to 20,000 years ago, the boomerang (subsequently isolated in Australia) and the bow and arrow. These weapons allowed hunters to kill larger animals with greater ease from a longer range. Around the same time, in many parts of the world humans took up fishing and established semi-permanent villages with populations larger than their traditional bands, constructing their homes of the materials at hand: wood, earth, stone, skins, mammoth tusks. They developed better ways to carry water, food, firewood and pelts back to camp: baskets, ceramic pots, sledges, toboggans and travois. Boats extended the distances they could travel in search of food and in trade for furs, tools or ceramics. These humans also turned the tamed wolf into a dog, the first fully domesticated animal, meaning its evolution and breeding became directed more by humans than by nature.
The circumstances in which our forebears found themselves changed dramatically – in part because of their activities – between the last glacial advance, which peaked around 18,000 years ago and the end of the Pleistocene some 8,000 years later. At their maximum, glaciers in eastern North America extended south over what are now the Middle Atlantic states and in the west covered Alaska, western Canada, Idaho, Washington and Montana. In Europe, Scandinavia, Denmark, most of Great Britain, Poland, Germany and Russia were under ice. Glaciers embraced the Alps and Dolomites, covering what are now Switzerland and sections of Austria, France and Italy. Bordering the ice sheets were dry steppes and grasslands supporting herds of animals, including mammoths, reindeer and giant bison. Among the predators hunting them were sabre-toothed tigers, scimitar cats, dire wolves, grey wolves and humans with their wolf dogs. In some areas, the wolf dogs resembled short-faced wolves, that is, they were barely distinguishable from dogs.
As glaciers retreated, the earth warmed and sea levels rose, reconfiguring shorelines, flooding the Bering land bridge between the Americas and Eurasia. Established ecosystems collapsed while new ones emerged. Heavy rains turned solid land to marsh, lakes dried up, steppes and grasslands turned to forests and the great inland sea of North America, with its lush marshes, became a high desert, the Great Plains. As many as forty species of mammals vanished, especially of the huge predators and prey, among them mammoths, mastodons, great-horned bison, giant rhinoceroses, giant sloths, cave bears, dire wolves, all the sabre-toothed cats and the armadillo-like glyptodonts. Others, like the horse and camel, disappeared from North America, finding refuge in Eurasia or the Southern Hemisphere.
To a degree we cannot yet determine that paleo-hunters contributed to the extinction of some of those large animals, like the mammoths, giant bison and rhinos, with hunting techniques that included driving them off cliffs or into bogs where they were slaughtered, baying them up with wolf dogs so they could be filled with arrows. In turn, their demise hastened that of the giant predators who fed on them. But many of those animals, especially the predators, also appear to have reached an evolutionary dead end, because they were unable to adapt to a world that had turned suddenly warmer and in some cases, to the loss of their preferred food. Their populations stressed, they were pushed over the brink by human activities, but we must not overestimate the force behind the shove. Humans with bows and arrows and atlatls, no matter how skilled, cannot drive a vibrant population to extinction, as we can see by observing how little impact the Plains Indians of North America had on the bison herds during the centuries they hunted them without horses and guns – and that is just one example. Even with those weapons, the bison endured until white commercial and sport hunters slaughtered them by the thousand for their skins. (Curiously, the Plains Indians do not seem to have used dogs in hunting bison, although they kept hundreds in their villages and donned wolf pelts while stalking their prey.)
The animals that survived the turmoil at the end of the Pleistocene were the smaller, less specialized, more mobile ones: humans, grey wolves, lions, the smaller ungulates, downsized elephants, rhinos and horses. Their size left them better suited to the warmer, damper world emerging with the retreat of the ice.
Disruptions caused by the changing climate and vanishing game fuelled the trend toward different settlement and dietary patterns. In some regions, groups of people realized that in the midden heaps and latrine areas of their camps, food plants they usually harvested from the wild were sprouting and flourishing. Combined with diminishing wild supplies, the bounty reinforced their inclination to return to the same campsites repeatedly to prolong their stays; humans, like other animals, being creatures of habit and territory.
Coincident with these cultural developments, humans began deliberately breeding their wolf dogs. They culled those that were unsocial or overly timid, thereby increasing the likelihood that subsequent generations would be as easily socialized. In the process, they turned the wolf into a dog. The humans wanted a guaranteed supply of reliable animals; the wolf dogs wanted security and society.
In many parts of Eurasia, North America and northern Africa, tamed wolves had proven themselves as hunting partners, but they became more difficult to obtain as people settled into permanent villages, were prone to moving off when they felt the call to mate and were maimed or killed in combat with large, fierce animals. At a time when hunters had to turn to other species, they needed, more than ever, to be guaranteed the assistance of an animal that excelled at scenting, tracking, and holding game or driving it into ambush. With their speed and agility, the dogs could handle anything from bears to birds, deer, elk, sheep, oxen and buffalo. They also could help guard the village against marauders.
Because no one had many tame wolf dogs – the entire human population of the world at the time was probably around 10 million – efforts to breed them dramatically narrowed the gene pool. For reasons we do not yet understand, that constriction had the effect of releasing the phenotypic variability inherent in the wolf, creating smaller, larger, differently marked animals. Slight genetic mutations – those for lop ears or a particular coat, for example – could rapidly be fixed in a line of dogs and then passed on, allowing bands to develop distinctive animals they could easily differentiate from wolves, a necessity after domestication of sheep and goats.
Although involving a biological process, creation of the dog was fundamentally a cultural act, like making tools, weapons and baskets. Bands in one region turned their captive wolves into dogs and then traded them, the way they bartered other goods or gave them as gifts during ceremonial exchanges. The knowledge of how to tame wolves was transmitted by people who were travelling. They also mated one of the dogs accompanying them to an animal in another village. Within a few generations, a general type of dog could have become well established and spread fairly widely.
Dogs were valued precisely because they possessed the stellar abilities of the tame wolf, but were less inclined to go their own way. The dog was as adaptable as the wolf to different climates and it was versatile enough to fit a range of needs. In addition to hunting and serving as dinner, dogs sounded a warning when someone approached, helped keep the camp clean of garbage and their people warm. They were playmates for children, totem objects for adults, as were nearly all animals that figured prominently in people’s lives. They exhibited a talent for finding their way home no matter what the conditions, which made them in some societies valued guides for the dead to the next world and for helping people in times of need – pulling them from the water, protecting them from attack by other people or animals. Wounds they licked seemed to heal miraculously, a fact that finds expression to this day in the saying “as clean as a hound’s tooth.” They also would breed with tame wolves that were still brought into camp – a bonus. It is not surprising that people domesticated the wolf thousands of years before any other animal and that many of them, especially the hunter-gatherers, kept only dogs.
For centuries, Americans and Europeans have underestimated the importance of the emergent dog as a food source, although that was probably one of its earliest functions. Many Native Americans ate puppies, considered the most delectable, on feast days or to honour special visitors and a number of traditionalists continue the practice. The Aztec and other people in South and Central American and the Caribbean also relied heavily on dog meat for their animal protein, frequently from animals that were castrated and fattened for the purpose. Throughout Asia and Oceania, the dog has remained a highly desirable meat, frequently the primary source of animal protein. During the 1988 Summer Olympics, the South Korean government requested butchers to move their dogs, who can sell for $200 apiece – the price of some hunting dog puppies in the United States – from display in their windows so as not to offend American and European sensibilities. On walks through New York’s Chinatown, I have seen dog carcasses hanging in the windows of butcher shops.
Throughout Europe, prehistoric people appear to have eaten dog, although at some point their descendants stopped, taking it up again only when no other food was available. Even then, they often did so reluctantly. Travelling along the Columbia River to explore land the young United States had acquired from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their men ate dogs provided by local Indians in the winter of 1806 to supplement their meagre rations. Clark wrote that after overcoming their cultural bias, many of them became “extremely [sic] fond of their flesh.” Lewis preferred it to venison or elk; although not personally “reconciled” to the taste, Clark admitted that he and the men were stronger and healthier for having lived on dogs than they had been for months. Other travellers filed similar reports.
By 15,000 years ago, people around the world were raising dogs, with the centres of activity being northern Europe, including England, northern North America, especially the Arctic region, the Middle East, China, Japan and Siberia. Presently, the earliest fossil called a dog comes from Obercassel, Germany and dates to 14,000 years ago, the late Pleistocene or upper Palaeolithic. (Pleistocene refers to the geological age; Palaeolithic to the human culture.)
Trying to piece together the puzzle of simultaneous domestication around the world, experts assigned certain broad types of dog to specific subspecies of wolf based on perceived morphological similarities and assumed areas of origin. It is a rough evolutionary tree that we hope will be refined as the tools of genetic analysis become more sophisticated.
Canis lupus pallipes, the small Indian wolf, probably gave rise to the dingo and its kin: the Asian pariah dogs, the New Guinea singing dog and related Pacific Island dogs. It could also have contributed to a few of the Native American dogs. Despite exposure to other dogs, the pariah has bred true to its original dingo type for at least 5,000 years.
Canis lupus arabs, the equally small and closely related Arabian or desert wolf – it and the Indian wolf are now sometimes considered the same subspecies – might have been progenitor of the sight hounds, the basenji and small-game hunters of southern Europe and a number of dogs indigenous to the Middle East, like the Canaan dog of Israel and pariahs who hang around villages as scavengers and guards. Many of these animals are similar to dingoes in size and appearance, leading some people to suggest that they might, in fact, have a common origin.
Canis lupus chanco, the woolly Chinese wolf, is the possible source of the chow chow and assorted Asian toy breeds, as well as the mastiffs, believed to have originated in the Himalayas, whose bloodlines were ultimately joined by descendants of the European wolf. Although this association is the most speculative, Canis lupus hodophilax, the extinct little Japanese wolf, probably figured in the creation of dogs like the shikoku, kai, the shiba inu and other indigenous breeds.
Canis lupus lupus, the European grey wolf, lies at the foundation of various herding, guard, and spitz-type dogs indigenous to Europe, as well as some of the terriers, believed to have originated in the British Isles. Along with the North American grey wolf, it is also progenitor to the Eskimo dogs and many Native American dogs, with an assist in some cases from animals crossing the Bering land bridge with migrating people.
The one apparent exception to this rule of wolf origin, which nonetheless proves that domestication was a process occurring around the world, is the Falkland wolf (Dusicyon australis). In The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Charles Darwin described Falkland wolves as so fearless and tame that they would invade campsites at night and steal meat from under the heads of sleeping shepherds and sealers. Taking advantage of that behaviour, the men would offer each visitor a piece of meat with one hand and knife it with the other. By the turn of the century, the little twenty to thirty-pound animals, which had fed on birds until the arrival of white men, were all dead. Within the past decade, however, Robert K. Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at Los Angeles who has contributed greatly to understanding canid evolution, conducted mitochondrial DNA analyses of one of the few pelts still in existence and his results indicated that this extinct animal is most closely related to the coyote. Since coyotes, a North American native, could not have gotten to those remote islands by themselves, the findings lend support to a theory that the little canids were brought to the Falklands by humans some 6,000 years ago.
© 1997 Mark Derr All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-8050-4063-3