Wolves Saved Humans From Extinction
"The Dog Master: A Novel of The First Dog" by W. Bruce Cameron (2015; Forge Books; $20.79)
The author of the celebrated "A Dog's Journey" and "A Dog's Purpose," among other fine books, W. Bruce Cameron here offers a novel set in the Paleolithic era, about 30,000 years ago, when climate change was threatening modern man with imminent extinction. Starvation forced human tribes to fight each other as well as wild predators for the rapidly diminishing or migrating prey. Humans needed every angle to survive, from weaponry to cunning. Biologists and archeologists have demonstrated that the most important element of our survival and evolution was domestication of plants and animals, and perhaps above all, wolves. Domestication and artificial selection not only saved our species from doom, but have altered our own biology substantially.
"The Dog Master" unfolds with mankind divided into tribes, including one called Wolfen, who worships wolves, paying tribute by offering them food, and mimicking their ways. Wolves were their gods, not their enemies. Spirituality and art were just beginning to surface in this era. The Wolfen represent early devotees.
Another tribe, the Kindred, is organized by sex: the men as hunters, the women as gatherers and in charge of marriages and any domestic issues. One woman heads the council, and thereby holds much political clout. Through her brutal pursuit of power, the council leader banishes a crippled child of her most hated adversary, claiming his disability is proof of a curse upon the tribe that has led to the decreased hunting. Mal, the banished son, eventually forms the bond with a female wolf and her pups that will change the course of his and his peoples' lives.
Cameron's characters in both of these tribes become intertwined, with a wolf at the center. He weaves the narrative in such an expert and enthralling pattern that one can easily forget the more fantastic elements: for instance, the communication among the people and tribes. In fact, he states as much in his very entertaining afterword:
"With no manuscripts to study, I could only speculate on what a conversation might be like between two members of the Kindred ... For all I know they would say 'LOL' to each other ... I am not alone in having to guess: as I read what experts had to say about this particular era, I was struck by how current theories attract consensus and controversy, and how some dogma, accepted in the past, has fallen into disfavor."
What experts do seem to agree on is that at some point one wolf was thoroughly domesticated by one human, and that act created an evolutionary leap. (For some really fascinating reading about evolutionary development, read "Domesticated" by Richard C. Francis.) The wolf's superior ability to hunt and track prey was of vital importance to human survival. But in the story, it is more than simple basic survival that brings the two species together. There grows a trust, an empathy, and a strong emotional attachment between the Kindred man Mal and his "Dog."
I'm not generally a fan of "cave" fiction, although I did love "Reindeer Moon" by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. And yet I found myself utterly enthralled and invested in each character. Once again, W. Bruce Cameron has written a brilliant novel that will certainly inspire more thought and conversation about the wolf's role in our evolution and survival, and about animal/human codependency. But it is also just a damn good read!