Early Mankind's Secret Weapon for Slaying Mammoths? Dogs

Today, you and your dog just stroll through the neighborhood. But once upon a time, the man-dog team ruled prehistory.

A vicious dog wearing what can only be assumed to be the pelt of a woolly mammoth it has slain. Image: Flickr/Petsadvisor.com

After hunting them for at least a million years, humans suddenly became really good at killing woolly mammoths, but modern humans haven't been able to figure out just how they did it. A new theory suggests that, maybe, man's best friend played an important role.

In central Europe and north Asia, there are massive mammoth graveyards dating back to 44,000 years ago, with tens of thousands of mammoth bones, some arranged in geometric patterns and some arranged into huts, found with stone tools and evidence of people. There wasn't however, any evidence of how they were killing the shaggy ancestors of today's elephants.

Reconstructed mammoth bone hut. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In an article titled “How do you kill 86 mammoths?," Penn State anthropologist Pat Shipman theorizes that humans' secret weapons may have been dogs.

While combing through the literature about the mammoth megasites, Shipman found that none of the usual big-mammal slayers seemed like plausible explanations for a mass mammoth die-off.

Drought would kill the oldest and youngest mammoths, but wouldn't have led to generations of mammoths being piled up on each other, like they were in these sites. It looked more like an innovation in the art of mammoth killing had changed the game for these humans. But elephants killed by hunters are usually not all killed in the same place, and, what's more, the tools available at the time didn't seem up to the task.

“Few of the mortality patterns from these mammoth deaths matched either those from natural deaths among modern elephants killed by droughts or by culling operations with modern weapons that kill entire family herds of modern elephants at once,” she wrote.

Shipman looked for other explanations. The mammoth bones were also fairly free of gnaw marks, indicating that once the mammoths were killed, people were able to ward off other predators, and there were an awful lot of dead wolves and foxes around the sites. There were also, according to recent work by a Belgian team of researchers, some early domesticated dogs found at the sites too.

Author's very good dog with stick possible tusk. Image: Ben Richmond

With the help of dogs, the mammoths could have been driven into what would become the boneyard.

“Dogs also can surround a large animal and hold it in place by growling and charging while hunters move in. Both of these effects would increase hunting success," Shipman said.

And these early watch dogs could have also kept other predators at bay.

"Both dogs and wolves are very alert to the presence of other related carnivores—the canids—and they defend their territories and food fiercely," Shipman said. "If humans were working and living with domesticated dogs or even semi-domesticated wolves at these archaeological sites, we would expect to find the new focus on killing the wild wolves that we see there."

It's not really known when or where dogs were first domesticated, but research has dated it back to around the time when mammoth megasites began appearing. Shipman said that more research would have to be done to determine if the dogs found at the sites were ancestors of today's domesticated dogs, or if they were a subspecies of human-friendly wolves. At any rate, there still isn't adequate evidence to say for certain that the human and dog power team gave rise to the mammoth megasites.

"If more of these distinctive doglike canids are found at large, long-term sites with unusually high numbers of dead mammoths and wolves; if the canids are consistently large, strong individuals; and if their diets differ from those of wolves," Shipman said. "Dogs may indeed be man's best friend."

For all the indignity that characterizes the relationship between me and my dog—she has to wear the occasional apron, and I have to pick up her poop with a plastic bag—it's nice to remember, or perhaps only imagine, that this is the combo that conquered the prehistoric.

Image: Ben Richmond