Our Leftovers Turned Wolves Into Dogs

by trupti soman
Our Leftovers Turned Wolves Into Dogs

January 13, 2021

A scientific study has revealed that 14000 years ago, feeding leftover meat to wolves turned them into domestic companions.

Were dogs always our best friends? No. Canis familiaris, a subspecies of the wolf, was our first domesticated friend who came from a hostile species to humans. Today our furry companions live in the same apartments as us. Some of us have dogs as pets, some have cats, while others keep birds, guinea pigs, or hamsters as their animal companions.

Without a doubt, at times, we look at our pets and wonder how did they even land up in our laps? Cats seem like miniature versions of tigers. Other pets like hamsters do not look like they came into being until humans specially bred them.

In it all, dogs seem like the most confusing pets. You will see them drooling on the couch, lazing away, or running behind cats. They usually appear to be tame, calm animals. But only a little bit of delving into dogs’ past will tell you that they evolved from ferocious beasts who still hunt in remote jungles.

So, let’s understand what happened in history that turned the once ferocious beast into man’s best friend.

Initiation of Dogs

Biologically, dogs descended from wolves. During Ice Age, wolves were in direct competition to humans (or Late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers) for prey some 14,000 to 29,000 years ago in Eurasia. Humans of that time were well equipped to have killed off the wolves. Instead, they ended up domesticating them. Dr. Maria Lahitnen and other experts at the Finnish Food Authority are the ones who unlocked the answer to this question.

Researchers studied the energy content of the food that both species consumed. Their diet consisted of horses, moose, deer, and weasels. To understand the distribution of energy better, they calculated the intake of calories through protein and fats. Humans did not need the amount of protein that these prey animals contain.

So, humans fed this excess protein to the beasts- the wolves. Researchers believe that humans fed leftover meat to these animals to domesticate them to guard their settlements and turn them into hunting partners.

Science Behind Domestication

Both species were existing when the land was covered in ice, and hunting was the only option for survival. Both humans and wolves were in a relationship where they let each other hunt as part of nature’s great game. The other side of the relationship meant they would kill either the prey or each other for survival.

Humans are carnivores who evolved from an ancestry of herbivores and insectivores surviving against larger carnivores. Humans developed into scavengers as they learnt more adaptive methods of survival. But this also meant that they could no longer digest meat like before.

The era when humans and wolves became so-called friends had plant scarcity and lean meat. Our ancestors contracted protein poisoning from too much meat. Their livers (which still are the same) were not adapted to metabolizing protein. They got only 45% of the calories needed for survival from lean meat.

This meant leftovers. When resources are abundant, different species of carnivores tolerate each other to allow scavenging for carcasses. But since our ancestors could not consume the entire prey, they fed it to a rival carnivore- the wolf.

This dog cranium was discovered in Germany in 2010, next to Neolithic human remains. The skull is about 4,700 years old. Our furry friends likely evolved from a population of wolves domesticated sometime between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. Photo by Amelie Scheu.

Easy Day's Work for Wolves

Scientist Lahtinen states that it is unlikely that human joined hands with a competitor when food was scarce, and the conditions were not adaptable to settle down. One hypothesis emerged that wolves might have stuck together with humans to eat all the possible scraps. But since our ancestors did not stay in one place long enough, this hypothesis was rejected.

What transpired then? Evolutionary instincts kicked in. Evolutionary psychology states that a gendered approach to survival meant that men chose to fight or flight. On the other hand, women decided to tend and befriend to protect old, weak, and children. It is possible that our ancestors adapted and befriended a species that could eliminate them. This habit helps scavengers even today.

Evolution of Dogs from Wolves.

Scavenging Carnivores- Environmentally Beneficial

The habit of eating as much as a species needs and leaving behind for scavenging carnivores is environmentally beneficial. How? Wolves can eat 9 kgs of meat until they are full. Since they are pack animals, they hunt together as a unit.

Killing an adult elk weighing 226 to 317 kgs means a one-time meal for the pack. They sleep off-post such a heavy meal. Leftovers are for scavengers. This cycle of wolves and scavengers helps to eliminate weak herbivores during harsh winters. Plentiful of such meat helps preserve food for those who are dependent on carnivores.

Researchers found that when comparing wolf kills of elves with human hunter kills in Montana, America, wolves provided 13154 kgs of leftover gut meat. Human hunted elves had 33,112 kgs of leftover. This threw the entire ecosystem for a toss as more bits meant scavengers would not be able to finish all of them, meaning that mobile scavenger ravens and bald eagles that come from far away will arrive and prey on endangered species.

Dogs and wolves share an ancient ancestor. But not all scientists agree on how dogs evolved after that. This diagram shows a leading theory. Groups that are connected by lines share the most traits.

Partial Prey Consumption

Partial- prey consumption is a method that helps the ecosystem remain in balance. Zooplankton, spiders, predaceous mites, insects, shrews, weasels, marsupials, canids, and bears exhibit this behaviour. In domesticating the wolves, our ancestors did the same, and they found friends for life. Distribution of food is an efficient method of managing resources. Wolves do it because of natural selection.

Killings by human hunters are seen as a good substitute for removing large carnivores from their areas. What we miss today is that our ancestors let the ecosystem remain in balance by giving space to others to do what they did best. Maybe it is time to bring our ancestor’s system back.


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