Support Provided ByLearn More
EvolutionEvolution

Wolf—Human Alliance May Have Finished Off the Neanderthals

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next
gray-wolf
Early dogs domesticated from wolves may have been crucial hunting companions for early humans.

Neanderthals ruled Europe for millennia, and then, in a geologic blink of an eye, they were gone, replaced by the more gracile Homo sapiens. Their sudden disappearance is remains a riddle. By many accounts, Neanderthals were powerful, intelligent beings.

Recieve emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

One theory—partially supported by genetic studies—suggests that humans interbred with Neanderthals, essentially diluting their genes until they contributed just a few percent to their more-human offspring. But a new theory suggests that humans simply outcompeted Neanderthals, not in direct combat, but for resources. It may not have been a fair fight—we had help, from wolves.

Early dogs were essentially lightly domesticated wolves, and they would have given humans an upper hand in bringing down Europe’s large beasts 40,000 years ago. That edge would have been sufficient to supplant Neanderthals at the top of the food chain, according to a new theory put forth by Pat Shipman, a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.

Support Provided ByLearn More

It wouldn’t have been easy to unseat Neanderthals. Their physique had been selected for during millennia of hunting mammoths, bison, and other large mammals. Their stocky stature and strong muscles helped them bring down many ton animal while avoiding injury (most of the time). That gave them access to bountiful prey and the competitive advantage that confers.

But according to Shipman’s theory, Neanderthals’ strength and hunting prowess wouldn’t have been enough to stave off a human-wolf alliance. Their combined stamina could more safely and reliably bring down large prey while also keeping would-be thieves at bay.

It’s certainly a plausible theory, but it relies on recent findings that may yet be disproven. Here’s Robin McKie, reporting for the Guardian:

The idea is controversial, however, because it pushes back the origins of dog domestication so deeply into our past. Most scientists had previously argued the domestication of dogs, from tamed wolves, began with the rise of agriculture, 10,000 years ago, though other research has suggested it began earlier, around 15,000 years ago.

Recent fossil discoveries and DNA analysis suggests that dogs were domesticated at least 33,000 years ago, making Shipman’s theory entirely plausible, at least in terms of timing. It could still be discounted by yet-to-be-found fossil caches and more advanced genetic studies, but the idea of humans and proto-dogs hunting side-by-side tens of thousands of years ago will remain an alluring image.

Learn more about how ancient humans and Neanderthals interacted in "Decoding Neanderthals."