What we are about to narrate to you is a love story. A story which is a little particular, but not different from any other love story. An encounter, a glance, and a spark which lights up, or if you prefer, a chemical reaction which triggers the molecules of two human beings towards each other.
Everything began one evening, some thousand years ago, while a group of men were entertaining themselves by eating around the fire of a bivouac after a hard day’s hunting. At the edge of the woods, hidden among the bushes, were sighing eyes that scrutinized the men while they ate. Their claws wide open and their pupils injected with blood, they while they sniff the smell of cooking meat in the air. Starving beasts, so much as to overcome the fear of man and fire, waiting to feed on the remains of that banquet, this was now becoming the normal way of getting food.
For some time now the men had realised that they had become the subject of interest of a group of wolves, however they let them alone, knowing that they were stronger. Then, one day, through curiosity, one of the men throws a deer bone to them, a gesture not different from what we do today when our dogs beg for a morsel of food with a languid look on their faces.
Well, maybe this is what happened while the fear of man slowly lessened in the wolves; curiosity and trust increased in them together with hunger, and they began to come out of the bushes to follow the men at a distance, waiting to clean up the food from their occasional bivouacs.
Then, early one evening, a hand stumbled towards one of the wolves that had come nearer than usual, trying to caress it, and that wolf, overcoming the instinct of mauling him, lowered its ears, closed its eyes and allowed itself to be caressed.
It is in this way, probably that a long love story began between man and dog. A story that has known no crisis, no regrets or infidelity, and that has lasted to up to this very day, as solid as it was on the first. Of course it has taken time. That wolf must have taken thousands of years to approach he who was his worst enemy, but, in the end, the two fearsome rivals, In the ferocious fight for survival, found each other, and there was no longer hate in their eyes.
There was, no doubt, a pinch of mutual interest as man was already developed enough to perceive, by intuition that that wolf could have been useful to him. The wolf devoured the remains of his meal, therefore keeping the encampment clean; it kept ferocious animals away giving the alarm if someone approached, and it possessed so many qualities that it could help man in the everyday struggle for survival. The wolf was strong, fast, brave, faithful and had acute senses. Besides, it was company, and it helped man win fear. The wolf too, probably did not mind having someone to take care of it and feeding it; someone to follow, to help, to protect; someone to play with, someone to be faithful to.
For the first time in the story of Creation, two so diverse species had united their forces to render their respective lives less tough.
But when did this story begin?
Generally this encounter is collocated between 11,000 and 16,000 years ago, when man was beginning to build first permanent settlements and dedicate himself to agriculture. Recent discoveries, however, question the domestication of the wolf, or, speaking more scientifically, the genetic retreat of the dog from the wolf, saying it began much earlier.
In 2015 the magazine ‘Current Biology’ published the work of some researchers from Harvard University, co-ordinated by Prof. Pontus Skoglund. The research was carried out on a canine rib, from the Taimyr Wolf, found in 2010 during an expedition to the Siberian Taimyr peninsular. The analysis of its DNA highlighted the existence of a large amount of genes in common with that of some of today’s animals, such as the Siberian Husky, the Greenland Dog, the Shar Pei and the Finnish Spitz. The scientists from Harvard have calculated that the mutation rate, that is the frequency with which a mutation takes place in any generation, is probably slow, which is why it is supposed, up to the present day ,that the dog might have started its evolutionary path much earlier than previously thought, probably between 27,000 to 40,000 years ago. The dating to radiocarbon of the remains of the Taimyr Wolf have, indeed confirmed that they date to about 35,000 years ago. These results were questioned by a study carried out by both researchers from Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs and from The University Rey Juan Carlos of Madrid, who re-examined the fossil remains discovered in Russia with innovative techniques and which backdated the encounter between man and dog to the Late Paleolithic Age. Morphological observations and genetic examinations have questioned the attribution of these remains of belonging to a dog.
Actually, the two hypothesis could co-exist. The separation between wolf and dog could have started 33,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, but for thousands of years the dogs’ ancestors might have limited themselves to exploiting food waste from human groups without establishing close relationships with them. Practically, the ‘coming together’ process between man and wolf might have lasted about 15,000 years, and only then did the real domestication begin. This conclusion was reached through a study carried out by researchers from the Chinese Academy of the Science, in collaboration with colleagues from other European and American universities, who together signed an article which was published in ‘Cell Research 2016’.
According to these researchers, the first phase of the ‘coming together’ process between man and wolf started about 33,000 years ago; the phase in which the wolves started to feed themselves on the remains of human food. In the long successive phase, the interaction with man slowly strengthened and became stronger. About 15,000 years ago some wolves began to live in close contact with man, and for his sake to modify their very nature.
What did this transformation consist in?
In 2013 an interesting study carried out by a group of researchers from the Swedish University of Uppsala, led by Prof. Erik Axelsson, was published in the magazine ‘Nature’. It has an extremely clear title: "The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet."
The Swedish researchers compared the DNA from 10 dogs of different breeds with that of 12 wolves coming from seven different countries and they discovered that the dogs are genetically different from the wolves, above all in their genes which control two functions:
1) Brain functions and the nervous system
2) Starch digestion and fat metabolism
These are the objectives of evolution!
To permit the dog to modify its original nature of ferocious, carnivorous predator to become a domesticated member of man’s society and, at the same time to adapt its alimentation to that of his companion.
The changes of behaviour were, certainly the first objective of this domestication process. The changes have also induced a contemporary transformation in their physical aspect. Further studies have indeed confirmed that both things are closely connected. During their evolution, the dogs left behind the aggressive and ferocious aspect of the wolf in order to assume the gentler and more playful aspect of a puppy: isn’t falling in love a little like going back to being a child? They have become sweeter and more sociable; they have overcome the fear of humans and, above all, they learnt to interpret signs from man. A dog is able to understand the minimum gesture of his master, even a glance from his eyes, a nod from his head. According to some, it can even read its master’s thoughts.
If the first purpose of the evolution was predictable and obvious, the second leaves us absolutely flabbergasted. Dogs, say the Swedish researchers, have developed a mechanism which wolves do not possess and which allows them to digest starch. The difference with wolves seems to regard, above all, the alpha-amylase gene, a protein which starts the breakdown of starch in the intestine. While the wolf has two copies of this gene, the dog has from 4 to 30 of them depending on the dog breed. It was also found that the level of alpha-amylase in a dog is 28 times higher in the pancreatic tissue and five times superior in the blood compared to that of a wolf.
What really happened? It is likely that some wolves began following the hunters and to feed on what they left behind as they went along their way. When the humans began to become stable and began to build the first villages the “wolves” remained with them, continuing to feed on what man threw away, becoming the scavengers of what was extra for man.
While evolution of the brain functions, which permitted the ferocious carnivorous to become our gentle companion began immediately between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago, when instead did the transformation which permitted the dog to adapt to a diet containing starch begin? We cannot say that both things took place at the same time, says Prof. Lindblad-Toh, who took part in the research, even if, evidently, those same wolves that were no longer afraid of man, and with him had begun to spend most of their time, were naturally the first to adapt to his diet.
It is known that man has remained essentially carnivorous since the beginning of the Neolithic Age, almost 10,000 years ago, the time in which a real revolution radically changed his way of alimentation because agriculture had become part of his activities. If the dog, living in close contact with man has started gradually to depend more and more on his master for food, it is reasonable to think that they ate the remains of what humans left behind, more or less as what happened when our "grandparents" fed their dogs with whatever was leftover in the kitchen and whatever the butcher gave them.
But what did man eat before the Neolithic Age?
He gathered seeds, vegetables, roots, tubers, berries, and, above all, the meat from hunted animals. A diet high in protein because it was rich in meat which the humans had learnt to cook in order to improve the assimilation, at least 5000,000 years before.
Recently it has been discovered, however, that a certain amount of cereal had become part of man’s diet before the real beginning of agriculture. A research entitled “Bilancino Settlement: Integrated Methodological Approaches For The Historical Reconstruction” carried out in 2010 by Dr. Biancamaria Aranganen from the "Soprintendenza per i Beni Culturali della Toscana" and by Dr. Anna Revedin from the "Istituto Italiano di Preistoria e Protostoria".
In the 1990s, during the diggings of a paleolithic site in Bilancino in Tuscany, a millstone and a stone pestle were found. It was known that Neolithic man had used that type of tool to grind seeds obtained from cultivation in order to make flour. However, this site was much older, it went back about 30,000 years, according to carbon-14 dating. Analyzing the vegetables found on the remains, under an electronic microscope, traces of starch were found. The following tests identified the origin of some marshy plants.
The discovery of Bilancino proved, however, that Paleolithic man was not totally carnivorous as had always been thought; but he had already started to feed on the first rudiments of cereals. He made biscuits, and probably gave some to his dog. The hypothesis has found further confirmation in the products of the grinding found in the millstone from the same period in Pavlov and Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic; in Kostenki in Russia and, in 1989, in Paglicci in Puglia. In the last mentioned locality, the traces of a primitive oat flour dated back to 32,000 years ago.
Therefore, living side by side to man, that one time wolf, had started to eat his food: in the beginning with great difficulty because his organism was not ready for that type of diet, then gradually, evolving and adapting to it. At the same time, man was doing the same thing. Of course, this part of the evolution must have been, for both, strenuous and, the fact that it still was not complete, is proved by the number of intolerances that even today afflict both man and dog.
This would induce us to think that many of the diets that we have at times made our dogs follow were based on the misunderstanding that, as dogs had evolved from wolves, they needed a similar diet to their ancestors, while, instead, when our “grandparents” fed the house dog on human leftovers, they were doing nothing but keeping to a routine that had been followed for thousands of years and which had allowed the wolf to adapt to that diet in order to become the dog we know today.
Thousands of years ago that wolf, which had fallen in love, had strayed away his wild brothers and from his species: and while his cousin continued to hunt prey, to kill and eat raw meat, the dog, in part had given up a part of its nature and way of eating. It gave up hunting and its howling to the moon. All for the love of man. We do not know if this was the right choice, but we know that nobody commands the heart!!!