Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Apologies and Appeals

My apologies for my recent lack of blogging. I’ve been holed up in the boonies for the past several days, away from the Internet and telephone, trying to make progress on my part of the working dogs book I’m doing with Wyman Meinzer.

I’m struggling with an introductory essay on the history of the canine-human bond. I’m thinking 2500-3000 words, aimed at a general audience.

For reference, I’ve checked A Dog’s History of North America and Dog’s Best Friend, both by Mark Derr, A History of Dogs in the Early Americas by Marion Schwartz, and Lost History of the Canine Race by Mary Elizabeth Thurston.

Naturally, Derr, Schwartz, and Thurston agree on very little.

In Dog’s Best Friend, Derr begins his history of the wolf-human relationship 500,000 years ago, pointing to evidence that Canis lupus variabilis and Homo erectus pekinensis were “sharing time and space, food and shelter…” He further mentions that remains of Homo erectus and wolves dating back some 400,000 years, were found in Kent, England. He does not come out and say that there was a working, religious, or ceremonial relationship between species, but it seems implied.

Further along, Derr states that tamed wolves were well on their way to becoming dogs by the end of the Paleolithic Age. He frequently uses the name “wolfdog,” to describe short-faced wolves or very wolfish but nearly domesticated canines.

He then says,

“Among the predators hunting them [large Pleistocene herbivores] were saber-toothed tigers, scimitar cats, dire wolves, gray wolves, and humans with their wolfdogs.”(my emphasis)

Yet, a few pages later, he writes,

“By 15,000 years ago, people around the world were raising dogs, [my emphasis] with the centers 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 Paleolithic.”

Mary Elizabeth Thurston begins much more recently:

“Tantalizing hints that a relationship of some sort was forming between people and wolves during this era come from La Grotte du Lazaret, a 125,000-year-old complex of Paleolithic shelters discovered in France in 1969, where wolf skulls appear to have been set at the entrance of each dwelling, leading excavators to speculate that canids already were incorporated into some aspect of human culture at this very early stage.”

Thurston also puts the development of the true dog well into the Neolithic Age:

“Some of the earliest known skeletal remains classified as dog come from the Neolithic site of Jarmo, situated in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains spanning Iran and Iraq. Radiocarbon-dated to 6600 B.C., the fifty-three cranial and mandibular fragments of big-boned canids suggest that they may have been descended from mountain-dwelling wolves who were larger than their brothers in the floodplain.”

As for the use of dogs or “wolfdogs” in the hunting of giant Pleistocene animals, Thurston writes,

“At a twenty-five-thousand-year-old mammoth hunting camp in the Ukraine, for instance, some distinctive wolf skulls were found along with butchered remains of at least 166 mammoths. The skulls were markedly different from those of average wild wolves, with many of them exhibiting foreshortened muzzles, diminished tooth size, and teeth crowding, all traits hailed as more common to domestic dogs than wolves.”

I’m confused and would appreciate any comments, especially suggested reading. I’m not trying to wimp out of doing the needed research; I’m in over my head and need a bit of guidance. Also, my deadline looms large.

In a recent comment on one of my blog entries, Steve mentioned that some of Derr’s dog-evo seems out of date, but noted that scholarship on that subject is moving rapidly. Further comments?

Again, this will be a commercial book aimed at a general audience, not a scholarly work, so I don’t have room to guide readers through each author’s arguments. However, I do want to provide a reasonable treatment, one consistent, as far as possible, with current scholarship. In other words, I don’t want to make a fool of myself.

Many thanks!


Matt Mullenix said...


Why not contact Steve directly? He's been busy on his eagle book but I bet never too busy for a little speculation on dog origins. :-)

For my part (an ignorant and fanticiful one) I suggest there is something to be said for multiple origins of "dog." As Patrick Burns cites, most dogs breed today are brand new---not ancient---and there is plenty evidence that a few generations of selective breeding can turn most any animal into a neotenic face-licker.

I fly a 5th-generation captive bred hawk that is tame enough to accept hugs from 6-year olds. Some well-trained wild caught hawks are, too, but this one could have suffered a hug on day one. That's a difference worth noting.

My guess on the contradictory evidence of dog origins is that maybe everyone is right. Dogs could have been "invented" numerous times, and lost to the wild, and reclaimed, and lost again, long before any evidence was left for us to see.

As my cousin Dave (the UF anthropologist) believes, as soon as we were human, we were doing every human thing. That includes taming critters.


Aaron said...

Ray Coppinger's book "Dogs" has some interesting stuff on canine evolution, although it might not be helpful to you, as it differs from the two sources posted above. He makes a pretty convincing argument (at least, convincing to me) that dogs were "pre-domesticated" by living in close association with people, which reproductively isolated them from "wild" wolves.

Henry Chappell said...

Matt, thanks for the input. I'll give Steve a shout. Your "multiple origins" suggestion makes sense. As for neotenic triats, I read recently about an experiment in which foxes were bred for docility. Within a few generations, they had playful, flop-eared little Reynards. I need to find that link.

Aaron, it's good to hear from you. Many thanks. I'll check out Coppinger. I checked out your blog, by the way. Very interesting. I'd love to talk with you about heirloom tomatoes when have time.

Steve Bodio said...

Henry-- write me. I am suffering bad gout in my write hand frm too much hurrying on book finish so can't type long but:

Much of the best isn't in books yet.

No multiple origin ( Saivolainen, no book); one Asian into five groups. This mostly post 15000 YA, but probably out of already- separate from wolf coevolved scavengers, perhaps selected (self?) for tameness a la Belyaev.

Ray Coppinger good on behavior but hopeless on genetics, and wolves with no flight response (rather than tame wolves, not the same) are DANGEROUS-- see Geist, guy killed in Canada, approaching NM catasstrophe. Also Ray hasn't had a new thought in years while others have.

All this ongoing and the subject of my next (unbought) "real" book so I have lots of thoughts.

Darren Naish has some good thoughts. Email him (he is a bit busy as Iam) and/ or check the archives of his OLD blog, where I have comments too.

Henry Chappell said...

Steve, I really appreciate your help. I know you've been busy with your book. I'll give you a shout soon.

I sure hope your hand gets better right away!

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to the Wikipedia entry on those domesticated foxes. There are more links at the bottom of the article.