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HISTORY

How Dogs And Humans Developed One Of The Most Amazing Friendships In Nature

Whether you're a dog person or not, you must acknowledge that our canine companions have made everything better for humanity. Here's how dogs and humans developed one of the most amazing friendships in nature.

It's very often said that dogs are a human's best friend—and this phrase certainly does not ring hollow. If anything, it's an understatement. Dogs have brought more joy and companionship to humanity than basically any other living being out there; or at least, that's how it seems to me. Regardless of whether you're a dog person or not, it's hard not to realize they're something special—and us humans, as a whole, are simply lucky to have them by our side.

It's also safe to say that, throughout history, both species have benefited from each other's company greatly. Dogs are thought to have helped us hunt to survive thousands of years ago, back when we were all still living in tiny huts fighting daily for survival. While the actual details of how the two species became so close remain obscure, there's a few things we can say for sure. Here's how dogs and humans developed one of the most amazing friendships in nature.

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Once upon a time

The rise of the canines

Let's take a small trip back in time. Around six million years ago, when the strange long-necked ancestors of horses and rhinos still walked the plains, Earth's climate gradually began to cool. This led to a series of glaciations, collectively known as the Ice Agewhich would have an overwhelming impact on pretty much all forms of life around. From one pole to another, ecosystems changed, forests and savannas were replaced by steppes and grasslands, and the bulk of populations around the globe had to desperately adapt to survive.

In the southern reaches of North America, small woodland foxes walked out of the dwindling forests and into vast open spaces that would forever change their species. Slowly, over many generations, these foxes grew bigger and stronger, and learned how to run much faster in order to hunt. Eventually, the genus known as Canis arose, which in turn gave birth to coyotes and wolves.

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Did you know...
A Greyhound could beat a Cheetah in a long-distance race. Though the latter accelerates more, the Greyhound has greater endurance.

The birth of humanity

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, a group of large primates decided to come down from the trees and venture into the unknown. Some of their brothers remained, and soon enough both groups diverged radically from one another. The descendants of those who stayed behind up on the trees are today known to us as chimpanzees, while something special happened to the descendants of those who left—they learned to walk upright, developed larger brains, and joined ever-closer to tackle the challenges of nature.

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They formed small tribes and societies and together hunted for increasingly dangerous game, taking advantage of their likewise rising intelligence. They became our ancestors, the first hominid species ever to evolve. Then, in a distant point in the past, the two stories joined: our foreparents encountered the dogs' ancestors somewhere along the open fields of Eurasia.

The meeting

The precise details of the encounter are lost to the long-forgotten ages of prehistory. What we do know, however, is that sometime between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago, a group of wolves began harmlessly interacting with humans, who, well established in the order of nature by then, were confident enough to allow an uneasy but otherwise peaceful relationship to develop.

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These wolves, or at least the specific individuals that first approached humans, were most likely scavengers rather than active hunters. They were probably the most docile, less violent-prone members of the pack—perhaps outcasts or younger and inexperienced animals. Whatever the case, humans merely tolerated their presence at first, and the less aggressive the wolves were, the more people began to enjoy their company.

The domestication

Some tales talk about how a single pup was rescued by a tribe and raised it in a manner that was helpful to both species. This version is probably too simplistic, but it's likely that at least some similar stories really did take place more than once, as wolves and humans became more familiar with each other. 

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Did you know...
With a success rate of about 70%, the African Hunting dog is the most successful land hunter in the world. They even hold a Guinness World Record for that.

Still, it would take thousands of years yet for dogs as we know them to appear. The early stages of this relationship benefitted tame wolves more than humans, but the latter soon found unexpected benefits from the arrangement. Not only were the wolves good company, but they could potentially keep a tribe safer for their sole presence. Perhaps the wolves began protecting their food-source at some point, which meant they inadvertently started protecting humans as well. As these wolves became tamer, humans began to interact with them more closely, eventually getting them to help in hunting expeditions. Thus, the wolves began to be formally domesticated.

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Most experts today think this process happened twice, independently, in two different places of Eurasia thousands of miles apart. This theory developed from the fact that we have found remains of genetically-distinct ancient dogs in the western and eastern parts of the continent, but not in the middle—meaning that it's unlikely one single group traveled from one extreme to the other.

As geneticist Laurent Frantz told Reuters

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"This suggests that at least two groups of humans independently came to the same conclusion: dogs can be domesticated. It also suggests that the process of domestication, while mostly rare, may be replicated more often than we think." 

Early canines were already moving across the planet about 20,000 years ago, perhaps migrating alongside their human companions. The first undisputed dog has been found to have lived 14,200 years ago, in what is now Germany.

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By 4,000 years ago, dogs were everywhere humans were. As time went on, humans started selecting for different traits in their old pals, looking for more than a hunting buddy. A special relationship was forged that went beyond helping each other out—dogs and humans truly became friends. We adapted to them, and they to us, thus cementing an everlasting partnership the depths of which is seldom seen in the animal kingdom.

Little by little, humans bred dogs to create variations that would specialize in different tasks: some breeds helped to retrieve game, others served as guardians, yet others were mainly meant to be as friendly as possible. And they trained us as well: we would look after them like part of the family.

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Thus, the dog became the first species to be domesticated by humans—and it remains the only large domestic carnivore to this date.

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