‘The Invaders’ sees dogs as key to modern humans’ success

Neandertals lost when Homo sapiens transformed wolves into hunting aids, author proposes


ON THE HUNT  In a new book, anthropologist Pat Shipman argues that ancient humans hastened the demise of Neandertals when they domesticated wolves and used dogs in big game hunts.

Ronnie Macdonald/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Invaders
Pat Shipman
Harvard Univ., $29.95

Ancient humans drove Neandertals to extinction around 40,000 years ago with the help of dogs soon after canines diverged from their wolf ancestors, anthropologist Pat Shipman proposes in her new book, The Invaders. Using fossil and genetic studies to build her case, Shipman argues that European Homo sapiens used the first dogs to track and corral big game for spear-wielding hunters. Unable to compete, Neandertals and several other meat-eating animals died out.

Shipman knows that Neandertals have inspired intense scientific debates for more than a century. Her proposed explanation of our evolutionary cousins’ demise won’t put those arguments to rest. But she raises an intriguing hypothesis to keep in mind as researchers learn more about interactions between Neandertals and Stone Age people and about the timing of dog domestication.

Shipman regards humans as the planet’s most accomplished invasive predators, having exploited one new habitat after another over the last 200,000 years. Successful invasive predators spell hard times or worse for native predators.

Starting around 42,000 years ago, only a few thousand years after humans reached Europe, Neandertal territory and hunting activity declined, archaeological finds suggest. Genetic evidence indicates that Neandertals’ numbers fell around that time, and other European predators, such as cave bears, similarly started a slide toward extinction 40,000 years ago.

European sites where mammoths were butchered as early as 36,000 years ago have yielded remains of wolflike creatures that some researchers regard as the first dogs. If humans domesticated wolves shortly after entering Europe, canine hunting assistants could have enabled much greater access to fat-rich mammoth meat, Shipman says.

The author acknowledges that holes exist in what might be called the Fido Scenario of human evolution. An ongoing debate concerns whether the fossil skulls that Shipman attributes to ancient dogs actually belonged to wolves. Also, some investigators suspect that large numbers of migrating humans genetically swamped sparse Neandertal groups rather than outhunting them.

Still, Shipman offers a nice rundown of much recent research on Neandertal and human evolution. In a particularly enjoyable chapter, she vividly describes wolves’ role as invasive predators in Yellowstone National Park. But it’s too early to tell if the Fido Scenario is barking up the right tree.

Buy The Invaders from Amazon.com. Sales generated through the links to Amazon.com contribute to Society for Science & the Public’s programs.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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