creative support for environmental organisations

The Leader of the Pack


This is the puzzling story of the Human and the Wolf, which howls back to 40,000 B.C.E...

A time when the mammoth and the woolly rhino roamed the European tundra, where Neanderthals had lived for over 250,000 years.


The common story goes that human ancestors domesticated the wolf.

It wasn't long after humans arrived in Paleolithic Europe that we befriended the wild things and bred them into dogs. Working in league, Ancient man and his wolf would make a wicked hunting team. Wolves could chase away competing carnivores (such as lions and leopards) and help us track down the tastier herbivore-types. Certain wolves may have been approachable, or perhaps we picked off the darling wolf cubs. Humans and wolves then worked together, to triumph as hunters and do away with our closest evolutionary relatives, the Neanderthals.

The evidence used to support the connection between the human and the hound are the 33,000 year old wolf fossils found in Siberia and Belgium. They have shorter snouts, wider jaws and more crowded teeth than the modern wolf. This is taken to be proof that European wolves became domesticated.


Yet some scientists argue that humans were prolific hunters of their own accord. That it was our persecution of the wolf which drove its need for an alliance. In one account, a few neighbourly wolves strolled up to the campfire and - with an imploring gaze - and first warmed our sweet human hearts. Over time, these clever canines have learned to read human gestures and to respond to our commands. Was it the wolf, perhaps, which domesticated us?

The third school of thought is one of Parallel Evolution. This most interesting theory argues that wolves actually taught us how to think and act in packs -in other words, how to be human.

Wolves hunted in groups; humans didn't. Wolves had complex social structures; humans didn't. Wolves had loyal same-sex and non-kin friendships; humans probably didn't... Wolves were highly territorial, humans probably weren’t (Temple Grandin)

An interesting twist to this story is when humans started burying their dogs, the human brain began to shrink. We like to think that our huge human brains are an indicator of superior intelligence. Indeed, colonial scientists spent a great deal of time comparing the size and the ‘beauty’ of various human skulls, for their intelligence. But over the past 20,000 years the human brain has actually been shrinking in size.

Turns out that the egg-head theory is a win for Ancient Man.

Fossil records show that the domestication of a wild animal will reduce its brain size. Both human and dog brains have shrunk by around 10 percent over the years (20,000 years). For the domesticated wolf-dog, it was the frontal lobe of the brain, whilst for the human it was the midbrain, which directs sensory data and emotions. Professor of Animal Science Temple Grandin believes that the human-wolf-dog alliance has led our brains to be specialised. ‘Humans took over the planning and organising tasks, and dogs took over the sensory tasks.’


A team of Chinese geneticists have also found that humans and wolf-dogs shared an evolutionary-rewiring. When we started hunting in packs, domestication forced ‘crowded’ new living arrangements upon us. There were changes in our digestive and metabolic processes (the paleo diet), and Neurological processes like serotonin production also evolved in both species. Perhaps this was due to a need for reduced aggression and convivial cooperation.

Today, we associate wolves with the mythical, the magical. A rare exception that can't be tamed.

Domestic dogs do not exhibit the carnivorous zeal that drives a wolf to hunt. My family dog would eat just about anything from a roadside wombat carcass to a juicy bit of rockmelon (although he would not abide burnt toast). Domestic dogs communicate by urinating on trees, approach strangers without hesitation and are more sexually rampant than their more sophisticated cousins.

However, it was that the man-wolf kinship formed, today we believe that Human is boss.

But consider for a moment who trudges off to the office and who frolics in the grass? Who dishes out the tummy rubs and who rolls on their back? I think when it comes to evolution, those cunning wolves became leader of the pack.

Click here to watch an adorable wolf cub with the hiccups.