Early dogs may have helped human hunters track and kill mammoths in Ice Age Europe and Asia. The fierce dogs may have then guarded the meat from their wolf relatives.
Penn State archeologist Pat Shipman recently calculated that the age ranges of mammoths found in these ancient boneyards suggest that the animals were hunted, not just scavenged after a catastrophe killed an entire herd. Shipman suggested that the domestication of wolves, along with improvements in projectile weapons, may have allowed people to successfully hunt large numbers of mammoths. The journal Quaternary International published her results.
From approximately 40,000 to 15,000 years ago, human campsites from Siberia to central Europe contained tremendous numbers of mammoth bones, sometimes from more than 100 individual pachyderms. In many cases, humans constructed buildings using the mammoth bones, tusks and hides.
Shipman noted that high numbers of wild wolf and Arctic fox bones appear along with the mammoth bones. Dogs may have helped guard the mammoth meat by alerting people when other carnivores came sniffing around. The wolves and foxes were then killed and skinned for their pelts and meat.
Earlier archeological discoveries, published in the Journal of Archeological Sciences, described a breed of dog, or semi-domesticated wolf, from approximately 32,000 years ago in what is now Belgium, the Ukraine and Russia. Genetic and skeletal evidence show that the dog-like creature was different from known wolves, yet its genetic signature didn’t survive in modern dog populations. This could mean the mammoth-hunting dogs either died out, or interbred with other dogs and wolves until they became indistinguishable.
Relatives of modern humans, including Neanderthals, likely hunted mammoths too. Chemical signatures in their bones suggest Neanderthals ate the extinct creatures. However, no known Neanderthal campsites contain the remains of hundreds of mammoth bones.
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