For hundreds of thousands of years wolves dogged herds of reindeer that migrated with the seasons between what is now Spain and eastern Siberia. At times predator and prey crossed the Bering strait to the North American continent, according to Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter. When early humans stumbled upon wolves bringing down reindeer, they may have been as hungry as those wolves, but they could not hunt as well. Stomachs growling, they may have puzzled over ways to plunder some of the bounty.
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They knew that a single human would be no match for a wolf pack. But humans are superior to wolves in some ways, say Schleidt and Shalter in their journal article "Coevolution of Humans and Canids." Humans have greater cognitive ability. Humans can see better at longer distances, because we stand taller than wolves. Once early humans created weapons, they could hit a target from a distance. These strengths could have helped humans hunt with wolves.
When hunting, ancient wolves, as they do now, sorted and sifted a herd to ferret out the animal that required the least effort to bring down. After wolves cut that animal from the herd, it would eventually stop and face its attackers. While standing still, it would make an easy target for humans' primitive weapons. A meal was won using the strengths of both predators; the partners shared the spoils.
Humans, say Schleidt and Shalter, also learned from wolves how to improve a herd's health by "eliminating the unfit and keeping away big cats, bears, and hyenas." Thus, wolves may have taught our ancestors animal husbandry.
Eventually, this canid-human relationship evolved into wolves becoming dogs. The commonly held view of that domestication is that humans chose the lazy, opportunistic, outcast-from-the-pack wolves that scavenged at human camps. But Schleidt and Shalter present an alternate - and intriguing - possibility of unrecorded history: "scavenging wolves took the initiative and conned the affluent hunting and gathering humans into sharing their plenty, by pretending to be their obedient servants and hunting companions." In other words, wolves may have chosen and trained us.
The impact of wolves on human development could be even greater. Wolves and humans are similar in two important ways. Both cooperate in group activities, such as taking care of young or hunting. And both share risks among group members. Schleidt and Shalter hypothesize that humans may have improved these two survival skills by studying wolves. We apprenticed with wolves and then with our bigger brains and the ability to develop technology, "humans became better gatherers, better hunters, more successful fishermen, gardeners, astronauts, you name it." Wolves, domesticated to dogs, became hunting companions, guards, beasts of burden, playmates, and baby substitutes.
In the end, humans became top predators with powerful arsenals and few thoughts of long-term consequences. We came to treat wolves as unacceptable competitors for game and livestock. We stopped appreciating what we have learned - and can still learn - from our four-legged teachers.
Click here to read the Schleidt and Shalter paper.
Rick Lamplugh is a wolf advocate and author of the bestselling "In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter's Immersion in Wild Yellowstone," available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.