26,000-Year-Old Child Footprints Found Alongside Paw Prints Reveal Oldest Evidence of Human-Canine Relationship
There is little doubt that humans and dogs are naturally inclined to be best friends. But when and how did this dynamic duo first emerge? Conventional wisdom holds that agrarian man domesticated scavenger canines about 15,000 years ago. However, recent archaeological discoveries and DNA analyses show that not only is our friendship closer to 30,000 years old (possibly 40,000 years) but also that man did not master and breed wolves into companionable dogs. Rather, our relationship was built on mutual benefits and respect. This new reality has been made strikingly clear by the discovery of a set of footprints indicating a small child walked alongside a large wolf some 26,000 years ago.
‘Neolithic man and wolf-dog.’ Source: Newton’s Apple
Finding the Prints
The Chauvet Cave in France is renowned as the site of some of the world’s oldest paintings. Over 400 images of animals were created around 32,000 years ago. Yet it is another discovery that has gripped the imagination of canine enthusiasts. In the back of the cave, one can see the ancient footsteps of a small child walking alongside a wolf. Stretching over 150 feet (45.72 meters), the prints were made in soft clay, hardened, and were left undisturbed for thousands of years.
Human and canine prints found in Chauvet Cave. ( M.A. Garcia )
The human prints are of a barefooted child aged eight to ten years old and standing about 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) tall. The child was walking, not running, although at one point it appears that he or she slipped a little in the soft clay. Researchers know that the child carried a torch because there is evidence of him/her stopping at one point to clean the torch, leaving behind a stain of charcoal.
It is amazing to think of a Paleolithic kid exploring this ancient cave, examining the paintings and bear skulls that were placed reverently at the back of the cave. Even more amazing is that accompanying (not stalking) the child’s footprints are the paw prints of a wolf (or possibly a large dog). This timeless image of a child and dog shatters the notion that dogs were only domesticated 15,000 years ago. More importantly, the new time period radically alters the answer to how dogs became man’s best friend.
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Old and New Theories
The now-outdated theory claims that at the end of the last ice age, wolves came skulking around human farms to feed off the garbage. In order to gain better access, the wolf had to approach in a humble and docile fashion. This habit was passed down among wolves creating a ‘juvenilized wolf’ at which point “humans took charge of its evolution through selective breeding, choosing those with desired traits and culling those who came up short” (Derr, 2011). This theory was widely believed until recent archaeological finds and more advanced DNA testing.
The new theory argues that humans and dogs evolved together. “We chose them, to be sure, but they chose us too, and our shared characteristics may well account for our seemingly unshakable mutual intimacy” (Derr, 2011). This relationship was not based on subservience but rather on a mutual respect for the different talents of each species.
A recreation of a Jōmon hunt with dogs. (Niigata Prefectural Museum of History/ Dogs For People )
The most important tenet that the new theory establishes is that wolves did not first interact with settled, agrarian humans. Instead, the 30,000-year date means that they would have first encountered roaming bands of hunter-gather humans. Over time, the two would have started cooperating because of “the similar social structure and size of wolf packs and early human clans [and] the compatibility of their hunting objectives and range” (Lange, 2002). In addition, the ability of each to understand each other’s moods and intentions would have greatly increased the likelihood of positive interaction.
‘Hunter gatherers at a campsite.’ ( Newton’s Apple ) Note the wolf-dogs waiting near food.
When one stops to think about it, this explanation seems a lot more credible than wolves pleading for scraps. Each side saw the benefits of teamwork. The early human would have picked up hunting strategies from the wolves and would have been greatly aided by the dogs’ keen sense of smell. Some scholars even suggest early wolf-dogs may have served as pack animals. In return, the wolves would have gained a more reliable food supply and increased protection. This was particularly important for the young pups who the adults may have been able to leave in the village while they went off on the hunt. The pups would have played with the human children and increased the fraternal bonds.