Photo credit: Hee-Chung Lee
Dogs are our soulmates.
Humans give meaning to the dead by burying them. Humans first started to bury their own dead probably around the time of the Neanderthals, and certainly by the time of the European Upper Paleolithic. After humans started to bury their own dead, they then started to bury their dead dogs with their own dead. The oldest dog burial, from Bonn-Oberkassel in Germany, is more than 14,000 years old. It is a burial of two dogs and two humans. A recent study argues that one of the dogs was mortally ill, but that others took care of it so that it could outlive its allotted life — for as long as a whole month. And when it died, it was buried alongside an old human male and a younger human female. This may be the oldest evidence that humans kept dogs for company, beyond their more practical uses as guard dogs or meat.
Why keep a dog? Dogs do not have much use as livestock. It is definitely more cost-effective to domesticate herbivores who feed on plants than carnivores like wolves who feed on meat. It does not make sense to procure meat to feed the livestock who get the meat. So, what is a dog’s purpose? In her book, The Invaders
, Pat Shipman argues that modern humans who arrived from Africa succeeded in out-competing Neanderthals and surviving through glacial Europe with the help of dogs.
A recent study in genetics shows that dogs lived with humans before any other animals. Animal domestication began around 10,000 years ago, during the Neolithic time period. Wolves were turning into dogs much before that, around 36,000 years ago.
What happened 36,000 years ago in Europe? Neanderthals and modern humans occupied the top rank as the predators in glacial Europe. Both hunted in groups, both went after similarly sized prey. Competing for the same resources as Neanderthals, modern humans formed an alliance with wolves. Due to the wolf-human alliance, Neanderthals went extinct and wolves became dogs. That’s how both humans and wolves preserved their lineages.
Humans lived through the Ice Age with dogs’ help, and with dogs' help conquered the earth.
Who make better companions, dogs or cats? That is a tough question to answer. The last thing we want is for the dog people and the cat people to start a fight over whose masters are better! Recently, we learned that dogs have more brain cells; on average, dogs have 500 million brain cells, twice that compared to cats' 250 million.
What do dogs use this enormous number of brain cells for? We might get some insight from another animal with an astronomical number of brain cells: humans. We all know humans have huge brains. The human brain is large in terms of absolute size, and large in proportion to body size as well. Five million years ago, the size of the human brain was comparable to that of a newborn baby; two million years ago, it doubled in size; and 10,000 years ago it tripled in size to reach the current average of 1,450 cc. Let’s not forget that around 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals had brains even bigger than ours. As brains got bigger, hominin body size stayed pretty much the same.
For a long time, tool-making and tool-using were cited as the drivers for and purposes of big brains. Actual data told a different story. Increase in brain size corresponded to an increase in group size and the accompanying increase in social complexity, rather than to an increase in the complexity of the technological information that needed to be taught and learned. As group size increases, so does the volume of information being exchanged between members. What’s more, this information is dynamic, changing as relationships do over time. According to the Social Brain Hypothesis. proposed by psychologist Robin Dunbar, our brain is big in order to store and process this dynamic and ever-increasing body of social information. Dunbar claims to have eavesdropped on everyday conversations taking place in public spaces such as cafés and restaurants. The people who spoke the most were not talking about philosophy and art. They were mostly interested in exchanging information about others they knew. They were gossiping. Now, gossiping is considered a crude behavior. But it is the activity that we most love to do when we are talking. As our social group gets bigger, we have that much more information to store and process.
Likewise, we might guess that dogs, who are intensely social animals, have big brains to store and process information about social relationships. Cats, by comparison, are almost individualistic. Dogs, with their superior social skills and acute sense of relationships, succeeded in extending that social relationship to humans.
The year 2018 is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese zodiac. Humans lived through the Ice Age with dogs’ help, and with dogs' help conquered the earth. I wonder what role they will play as we will live through the environmental crisis that is now upon us: global warming.
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is a professor of anthropology and associate dean of the college of humanities, arts, and social sciences at UC Riverside, and lives in Riverside, California. She earned her MA and PhD in anthropology from the University of Michigan. Close Encounters With Humankind
is her most recent book.