How the Domestication of Dogs Changed Civilization

May 11, 2015

civilization shenandoahBy Linda Cole

For centuries, dogs have been used by humans to do a variety of jobs. Before the invention of gunpowder and firearms, canines were instrumental in helping hunters put food on the table and protect their family. However, the greatest and most significant impact of dog domestication was how it changed human civilization.

History is an intriguing and complicated mixture of stories passed down from generation to generation, and documented accounts preserved in paintings, sculptures, ancient writings and cave drawings. Archaeological discoveries add important information about events that took place thousands of years ago to help scientists unfold the why, where, when and how.

When we use the word “theory” it means an idea or hunch about something. In the scientific community, theory is how researchers interpret facts. During the very early years, our closest now-extinct human relative, Neanderthals, and modern humans (Homo sapiens) co-existed for a time in Europe and Asia after humans migrated from Africa into Neanderthal territory. Both used fire and tools, and were expert hunters, but Neanderthals became extinct while humans flourished. The general consensus as to why Neanderthals died out is believed to be climate change which caused changes in the environment that Neanderthals couldn’t adapt to.

A new theory, however, from Pat Shipman, an adjunct professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, is challenging this widespread belief. Her theory is that modern humans, who were still hunter/gatherers, were able to adapt to climate change because they had dogs. For some unknown reason, Neanderthals never established a relationship with canines. Dogs would have given early humans a huge advantage in locating and killing prey, guarding small villages, and sounding out an alarm when predators or unfriendly humans were close by. The cooperation between man and dog made hunting more efficient with less risk of being injured, and provided more food for people and dogs.

Humans living with canines would have had advanced notice of danger, giving them time to react. Neanderthals hunted with hand weapons which meant they had to get close to kill prey, putting them at greater risk of being hurt or killed. If Shipman’s theory is correct, early dogs were already having an impact on human history.

It’s an interesting theory and has some archaeological backing from research conducted by Mietje Germonpré from the paleontology department at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. She found evidence of large carnivores at huge collection sites of mammoth bones in Europe. Originally, the large carnivores were assumed to be wolves, but further study of the bones showed they were early domesticated dogs larger than modern canines.

With one species of man extinct, human civilization began to evolve when modern humans transitioned from hunter/gatherers to an agricultural society around 10,000 or so years ago. Archaeological findings do suggest domesticated dogs were living alongside humans before they turned to farming, and both adapted together to a new way of life.

Humans understood the benefits of their partnership with dogs when they discovered that canines were helpful with everyday tasks. They began to domesticate other animals including sheep around 11,000 to 9,000 BC and goats around 8,000 BC. Both animals were used for food and milk, and their coats had other uses. Pigs and cattle were domesticated about the same time. Horses weren’t domesticated until around 3,000 BC and were used for food and milk before humans discovered horses could be ridden. The horse gave humans the ability to move faster and farther. Oxen were domesticated about 4,000 BC which helped farmers increase production of wheat and rice and transport their crops over longer distances. The camel, llama and alpaca were domesticated around 3,000 to 1,500 BC.

Taming other animals meant there was always a steady supply of meat and dairy when farmers were able to manage and herd livestock. This played a huge role in an emerging agricultural society which aided in the expansion of human civilization. Larger farms produced more food. Access to more food caused an increase in population that then needed infrastructure, a social pecking order, and architecture. Interactions between different civilizations grew as trade routes were established.

The domestication of animals transformed human civilization and had a huge impact on the lives of people. It opened up the world to expansion, trade, and knowledge. However, it was the first domesticated animal – the dog – that helped humans understand it was possible to tame other animals. This realization changed human civilization and ushered in our modern society.

Top photo by Shenandoah Valley/Flickr
Bottom photo by Alan Levine/Flickr

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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