Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Did Neandertal Go to the Dogs?

Did Dog-Human Alliance Drive Out the Neanderthals?
In her new book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, Pat Shipman, retired adjunct professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, sets out a groundbreaking new argument.

Talking from her home in North Carolina, she explains how reading about invasive species while holidaying on a Caribbean island inspired her, why more accurate carbon-dating methods have revised the timeline for Neanderthal extinction, and how the discovery of "wolf dog" remains at woolly mammoth sites in Central and Eastern Europe may hold the key to understanding why humans went on to build the Sistine chapel and send a robot to Mars while Neanderthals became a footnote in popular culture.
Except that there's a little Neanderthal (~5%) left in most of us non-Africans as a result of a small amount in interbreeding.
First of all I want to say that when I use the term wolf dog, I don't mean a hybrid between a wolf and a modern dog. It's not clear if it's appropriate to call these things wolves or dogs. They're not modern dogs, and they're not modern wolves. They're not ancient wolves, either. They're a distinctive group. Forty individual specimens, at a number of different sites, have been identified as what I'm calling wolf dogs.

They're large, have big teeth and all those predatory, dog/wolf characteristics. You have to assume from the anatomy that they could track very well from the scent of an animal. They were built to be fast running, as wolves and most dogs are. Humans don't run terribly fast. We have a crappy sense of smell. We do cooperate with each other, which is helpful, and we had long-distance weapons, like spears and bows and arrows.
Some of the work on these "proto" dogs suggest they were the size and shape of large huskies.
Neanderthals seem to have specialized in stabbing an animal at close quarters with handheld weapons and wrestling it down. We had weapons we could launch from a distance, which is a very big advantage. There's a lot less risk of personal injury.

Add into that mix the doggy traits of being able to run for hours much faster than we can, track an animal by its scent, then with a group of other wolf dogs surround the animal and hold it in place while you tire it out. The advantage for wolf dogs is that humans can come in and kill from a distance. The wolf dogs don't have to go and kill this thing with their teeth, thereby lowering the risk of injury and death from very large animals like mammoths. For humans, it meant you could find the animals a lot quicker and kill them more efficiently. More food, less risk, faster.
People have been using dogs to hunt for a long time. Plus people tend to leave a lot of edible garbage behind, at least from a dog's point of view.

A lot of the new evidence from your claims came from an archaeological site in Předmostí, in the Czech Republic. Describe this place and how these finds revolutionized our understanding of Neanderthals.

Předmostí is one of a series of archaeological sites in Central and Eastern Europe. They're really weird sites because they're full of dead mammals. Before modern humans came into Eurasia, there was little evidence that Neanderthals were killing mammoths on a regular basis. They're huge! Attacking them with handheld weapons was probably too intimidating, unless you came across a baby mammoth.
 I've heard the Pygmies kill elephants in the Congo by stabbing them in the gun with spears, and then tracking them until they die.
But once modern humans arrive on the scene, you start finding these sites with dozens and sometimes hundreds of dead mammoths. At some, the bones are so concentrated that if the mammoths were alive they couldn't stand in the territory where their bones are.

Neanderthals didn't have the chops to bring down woolly mammoths, but modern humans hunted them successfully, thanks to their wolf dog partners.
 I think the scientists should try the experiment with modern elephants, and their own dogs.
These mammoth megasites, as they became known, contain an outrageous amount of mammoths. So what's changed that is going to enable modern humans to kill all these animals? Neanderthals couldn't, and they weren't inept. Distance weapons of the kind that humans had might have been helpful, but you had to track the darn thing as it died.

And that's where wolf dogs come in, because wolf dogs are found with lots of mammoth bones. Some of these sites even have beautiful tent-shaped huts made out of mammoth bone. This suggests people were there for a long time. They were living there and building these settlements where the animals died.
This is an elaboration of a theory that we've seen before, that dogs and modern humans co-evolved, that in the process of "domesticating" the wolf both the domesticated wolf and modern humans evolved to work together. This theory goes on to suppose that this is the reason that the dog-human collaboration made the difference between modern human dominating the modern world or not, and thus overwhelming the Neanderthal, who had survived fairly well in Europe up until that point.

True? It's hard to tell, and I think it will be different find anything more than correlative evidence. Dog bites on a Neanderthal skeleton?

Wombat-socho has "Rule 5 Sunday: Summertime Girls" ready at The Other McCain.

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