The Japan Times
April 4, 2002

Old dogs teach survival tricks

(Reuters) The adage that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks may be the wrong way round.

It could have been that new tricks were taught to people by dogs more than 100,000 years ago, prompting humankind to take a leap in development leading to modern culture and society, researchers in Australia said last week.

"We believe there were several forces that led to the development of anatomically and behaviorally modern humans, and that the close relationship between our human ancestors and wolves was one of the key factors," said Paul Tacon, principal research scientist at the Australian Museum.

Tacon and bio-archaeology consultant Colin Pardoe published the theory in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Australia.

At the heart of their contention that the ancestors of man's best friend were instrumental in helping humans to survive and thrive is what they call growing archaeological and genetic evidence that the partnership goes back at least 100,000 to 130,000 years – far longer than conventionally thought.

Tacon said modern man's strong territorialism is not shared by other primates. However, wolves and dogs have always been ferociously territorial. The habit, claims Tacon, may have rubbed off on humans after generations of living together.

Rock art or stenciled outlines of hands could have been ancient man's means of marking his territory, in much the same way as a dog marks its with urine.

As man's sense of smell diminished, possibly because we began to rely on domesticated wolves, a visual and more durable way of staking out territory would have been a logical alternative to scent-based markings.

"Eventually this led to the development of all sorts of figurative art around 40,000 years ago," Tacon said.

Big-game hunting would have been easier with some cooperation from wolves. By pursuing big game, man was able to survive in less-friendly environments and occupy deserts and the Arctic.

Of perhaps greatest significance is the somewhat outlandish theory that learning how to get on with and then domesticate wolves could also have taught humans how to develop relationships with other humans.

Primates are naturally good at infant-mother relationships but do not tend toward a strong ability for same-sex ties.

Tacon and Pardoe argue that the human-canine partnership potentially paved the way for friendly contact between humans.

The idea that man may owe his best friend more than we acknowledge needs a lot more study, the researchers say.

Until recently, it was thought that dogs were domesticated only 14,000 years ago. Wolf bones found near human bones dating back 400,000 years in Britain, 300,000 years in China and 150,000 years in France were dismissed as signs that we used to eat them.

But Tacon said there were gaps in our understanding of human development that might be answered by raising new questions.

"We're looking at the past from a new perspective," he said.

"If we can bring more and more perspectives to bear on our interpretation of the past, we'll have a closer approximation of exactly what was going on."

DOGGY STYLE – A piece of aboriginal rock art from North Queensland, believed to be 4,000 years old, showing a dingo and a human figure. New research suggests that dogs were important in in human evolution. REUTERS PHOTO