Old Dogs Taught Humans New Tricks
Australian scientists believe the adage that you cannot teach an old dog
new tricks may be the wrong way round.
Research scientists at the Australian Museum believe 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.
The team’s principal research scientist, Paul Tacon, said: “We believe
there were several forces that led to the development of anatomically and
behaviourly modern humans, and that the close relationship between our
human ancestors and wolves was one of the key factors.”
Mr Tacon and bio-archaeology consultant Colin Pardoe published the theory
today 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 went
back at least 100,000 to 130,000 years – far longer than conventionally
Mr Tacon said modern man’s strong territorialism is not shared by other
However, wolves and dogs have always been ferociously territorial. This
quality may have rubbed off after generations of living together.
Rock art or stencilled outlines of hands could have been ancient man’s
means of marking his territory, in much the same way as a dog marks his
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,” Mr 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 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
towards a strong ability for same-sex ties.
Mr Tacon and Mr Pardoe argue that the human-canine partnership potentially
paved the way for friendly contact between humans.
“That was a tremendous survival advantage because that speeds up the
exchange of ideas between groups of people, the exchange of material
culture and of course gene flow,” Mr Tacon said.
“Through cooperation we’ve achieved incredible feats, we’ve been able to
reach the moon for instance.”
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 Mr 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