During the most recent ice age, from about 20,000 years ago, large mammals such as bison roam on the sub-arctic tundra of Europe and Asia. They are preyed upon by two groups of hunters, both much smaller and weaker than themselves – but both with a sufficiently developed social system to enable them to hunt and kill in packs.
These hunters are humans and wolves.
The typical pack of wolves and of humans is surprisingly similar. It is family-based, led by a dominant male whose female partner is likely to have an authority second only to his. Members of the group are friendly to each other but deeply suspicious of outsiders. All members (not just the parents) are protective of the newly born and the young. Both species are good at interpreting the moods of others in the group, whether through facial expression or other forms of body language.
Legend acknowledges these shared characteristics in stories of children suckled by wolves. The other side of the same coin, in real life, means that wolf cubs adapt easily to life among humans.
Humans and wolves are competing for the same prey, but there are advantages for both in teaming up. For the wolf, human ingenuity and the use of weapons mean a share in a greater number of kills – and perhaps even an occasional taste of larger victims, such as mammoth. For humans, the wolf’s speed and ferocity is equivalent to a new weapon.
The partnership is natural. So, undoubtedly, is how it first comes about. People love to nurture any abandoned young animal, and a wolf cub is well adapted to learn the rules of a hierarchical human society (in which its place will be low). From this partnership all dogs derive. Unbelievable though it seems, every single breed of dog is descended from wolves.
For a species to become domesticated, it must be willing to breed in man’s company. ‘Breed in captivity’, the more usual phrase, implies a simple case of exploitation. The reality is more complex. In terms of survival, those species which have developed a relationship with man have far outstripped their wild cousins.
The most numerous large mammals, apart from humans, are cows, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and dogs. Domestic cats easily outnumber their wild equivalents, as do chickens and turkeys. The domestication of animals is based on an ancient contract, with benefits on both sides, between man and the ancestors of the breeds familiar to us today.