Homo Caninus

People, or Homo Sapiens, have been around for up to 500,000 years. We have about 8,000- 10,000 years of recorded history. For 98% of our time on earth, we did little or nothing more than chimps, gorillas or any other wild animal. That’s about 25,000 generations of humans who did, well,  not so much.  We are fewer than 1,000 generations from living in caves. So, what happened?

Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relative, but despite sharing more than 99% of our DNA, we aren’t very much like them. Completely remove civilization and we are still very different from apes. We cooperate more than any other ape. We are more social. We are more ethical/moral. We communicate much better and much more. We coordinate much better. We can take bigger risks, hunt larger game because of it. We are pretty strange apes in that we don’t act like apes. Apes are machiavellian. Most of us aren’t just in it for ourselves. “Am I my brother’s keeper(caretaker)?” is a question that apes would never ask. Their answer is “No.”

The story we are told is that Humans domesticated wolves to be our dogs. Think about that, though. 10,000 years ago we were as nomadic as wolves, meaning no houses. The wolf was an Apex predator, with no animal preying on it. Imagine trying to “tackle” and contain a 120lb wolf even without its pack nearby. And by “nearby,” think 50 square miles, the distance a wolf howl can travel. Or maybe they scavenged our “trash.” 10,000 years ago we would have been eating the same things as wolves. If wolves got hungry enough to scavenge, we would have been just as hungry and had as little to scavenge. And rather than scavenge from us, it’s as likely they may have hunted us.

Think about an average day 10,000 years ago. The group gets up around dawn. One or two adults stay at camp to watch over the young and the very old and the sick. All the other adults go hunting. Let’s say they find a herd of reindeer. They can’t attack the whole herd so they have to separate one out. And the herd can see them coming. So, they chase until the herd is stretched thin (thinning the herd refers to the time before the kill). But a herd wants to stick together, with the young and the weak in the middle. They have to coordinate. Chase from different directions. Tell each other what they’re doing, who should run where and when. If they can separate part of the herd, well, someone has to keep chasing the larger herd so it doesn’t rejoin the smaller group. And do this over and over until they are down to just one. But then they are stretched over a very wide area. And no one knows who will be the one to get a reindeer alone. They have to shout to each other “Hey, I’ve got one cornered!” Then who ever that is has to wait for the others. And they’ve got their reindeer. They carve it up and take what they can back home, leaving as little as possible to attract other predators. When they get back, everybody eats, even the dying. This is a wolf pack. Sound familiar?

We didn’t domesticate wolves. They domesticated us. Humans arrived in North America about 12,000 years ago. Grey Wolves arrived about the same time. The fossil records says “about,” but it was probably the same day, because we were probably working together. Wolves howl to communicate with their own pack and to tell other packs that this is our territory. A large prehistoric herd could have supported several packs of wolves. So long as the wolves keep up on who’s who and who’s where. And with a little practice, you or I can do a very passable wolf howl.

We learned their language, the way they hunt, they way they live together.  And then we co-evolved. 35,000 years ago there is evidence of a “wolf-dog,” not a hybrid, but neither wolf nor dog. They were wild, and they were working with us. Some were even buried like humans. We learned a lot from them. The pack is more important than the individual. If you’re hurt, I will have your back. We will co-operate and we will be better for it. I will watch out for you if you watch out for me. We will share everything and we will all be better. These are all things things humans learned from wolves. And at some point, once we were sufficiently similar to each other, we teamed up and conquered the world. We started with a herd. However it happened, Wolves and Humans stopped chasing the herd and started herding it. By keeping it nearby rather than following it, we could be fed on our terms, build a thing and be nearby it for a long time. Like a house, or a farm…

We made tools, we lived in caves. We made art, we lived in caves. We made clothing, we lived in caves. We made fire, we lived in caves. We teamed up with dogs, we cured Polio.

“Dogs have been domesticated for a very long time. They have descended from wolves who were pack animals. They survive as a result of team work. They hunt together, den together, raise pups together. This ancient social order has been helpful in the domestication of the dog. Chimpanzees are individualists. They are boisterous and volatile in the wild. They are always on the lookout for opportunities to get the better of each other. They are not pack animals. If you watch wolves within a pack, nuzzling each other, wagging their tails in greeting, licking and protecting the pups, you see all the characteristics we love in dogs, including loyalty…. even after hundreds of years of selective breeding, it would be hard if not impossible to produce a chimpanzee who could live with humans and have anything like such a good relationship as we have with our dogs. It is not related to intelligence, but the desire to help, to be obedient, to gain our approval.” (Jane GOODALL 1997)
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