Raised by Wolves

Michal Rovner: Night-7, 2016. Rovner’s work is on view in the exhibition ‘Evolution,’ at the Pace Gallery, Palo Alto, March 9–April 15, 2018.

One day around 26,000 years ago, an eight-to-ten-year-old child and a canine walked together into the rear of Chauvet Cave, in what is now France. Judging from their tracks, which can be traced for around 150 feet across the cave floor, their route took them past the magnificent art for which the cave is famous and into the Room of Skulls—a grotto where many cave-bear skulls can still be seen. They walked together companionably and deliberately, the child slipping once or twice, as well as stopping to clean a torch, in the process leaving a smear of charcoal.

It’s nice to imagine that the pair’s Huckleberry Finn–like exploration became the stuff of legend in their clan, for at the time Chauvet Cave’s recesses were abandoned, its art and cave-bear bones were already thousands of years old, and soon thereafter a landslide would seal the cave entrance. Whatever happened, the pair’s adventure certainly became famous in 2016, when a large radiocarbon dating program that included the smear of charcoal discarded by the child confirmed that the tracks constitute the oldest unequivocal evidence of a relationship between humans and canines.*

You might think that fossil bones and ancient DNA would allow scientists to trace our relationship with canines through the transition from wolf to dog, but this is not straightforward. Over thousands of years of domestication, canine DNA has become hopelessly mixed, and even the most complete Ice Age canine skeletons cannot be absolutely identified as wolf or dog. A 36,000-year-old canine skull from Goyet Cave in Belgium illustrates some of the problems confronting researchers. It is the earliest dog-like skull ever found, being relatively small and short-faced, as dogs’ are, but wolves’ generally are not; yet genetic analysis reveals that it is not closely related to any living wolves or dogs.

Genetic studies of wolves and dogs indicate that their lineages split between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, and the limited archaeological evidence suggests that the split occurred in Europe. Cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs were all first domesticated much later—beginning around 10,500 years ago—in the Near East. The realization that humans and dogs have been companions for at least 30,000 years has prompted a reconsideration not only of the relationships’ origins, but also of its consequences.

In The First Domestication, Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg argue that important insights into the origins of the canid–human relationship can be gained from studying the relationships between various indigenous peoples and wolves, which they claim are often ones of mutually profitable coexistence. One example concerns the Blackfoot people (NiiTsitapiiksi) of what is now Montana and parts of western Canada. They “were fond of wolves as companions,” sleeping on wolfskins and singing songs to encourage wolves…

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