Sharing Leftovers Likely Turned Dogs Into Man’s Best Friend

Three hounds out for a stroll in San Diego’s Point Loma. (Courthouse News photo/Barbara Leonard)

(CN) — Early humans sharing their leftover, unwanted meat with wolves during the brutal winter months of the last ice age may have been one of the first major steps in canine domestication, according to a new study.

While they may be universally hailed as man’s best friend today, many thousands of years ago humankind and canines were locked in a brutal competition for survival. Both pack-hunting, meat-eating predators, humans and wolves frequently clashed over the limited resources of the wild, each utilizing their unique strength, intellect and hunting prowess to thrive in the early world.

This struggle between the two species was so fierce, most prehistoric human hunters typically eliminated nearby wolf populations rather than tolerate their presence, fearful for the kind of competition wolves could pose to human survival when resources became scarce and fresh meat proved harder to come by.

Yet despite this combative relationship, humans went on to successfully tame certain species of wild wolves over the course of generations — the first ever animal group to be domesticated in human history. While this ultimately resulted in a tightly knit and uniquely strong relationship between humans and dogs, numerous questions linger on how these former rivals first came to live peacefully with and eventually love each other.

To help answer some of these questions, researchers led by Maria Lahtinen of the Finnish Food Authority presented a new hypothesis Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports that suggests the relationship between humans and canines was made possible by the thing still loathed by many humans and often fed to their dogs: leftovers.

In their study, researchers say they used a series of energy content calculations to gauge how much leftover energy from food humans had at their disposal during the last major ice age roughly 29,000 to 14,000 years ago. Researchers looked at leftover food from meat sources that were also popular prey for wolves, such as horses and deer, to see what food surpluses humans and their canine competitors would have potentially commanded.

According to the data, most of the surplus food humans maintained was likely lean, protein rich meat, given that in winter when plant-based food options became drastically limited, humans favored fatty and greasy meats to sustain themselves in the frigid temperatures. Researchers theorize that to reduce competition in the wild, humans gave these unwanted meat portions to newly captured wolves famed for their ability to survive almost exclusively on lean meats for months at a time.

Researchers say humans sharing leftover meat scraps with their four-legged companions — an image still relevant today — resulted not only in less competition in the wild, but helped to promote companionship and trust between the two species.  

The researchers observed domestication of canines was also possible because humans and wolves lead remarkably similar lives, from their diets to their social conventions, and that the similarities helped bring the species together and strengthened their bond as time went on.

“There is little doubt that similarities between human and wolf societies facilitated in the process of wolf domestication,” the study authors wrote. “Following the initial phase of domestication, a process of coevolution appears to have taken place, which explains some traits shared by humans and dogs. The domestication of dogs has increased the success of both species to the point that dogs are now the most numerous carnivore on the planet.”

While the history of dog domestication stretched well beyond the last ice age, data suggests it began in earnest during that time. By feeding their leftover lean meats to captured wolves, early hunters made it possible for wolves to become invaluable pets, hunting partners and even guards for humans as they navigated the dangers of the early world.

Experts say that crucial time for both species put canines on the path toward becoming fundamentally intertwined with their human counterparts, a remarkable relationship that thrives to this day.

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