Ancient humans in Europe may have stolen food from wild hunting dogs

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By Krista Charles

artist's reconstruction of wild dog

Artist’s impression of a pack of Eurasian hunting dogs chasing prey

Mauricio Antón with scientific supervision by D. Lordkipanidze and B. Martínez-Navarro

The earliest humans known to have lived outside Africa shared their environment with hunting dogs – and may even have stolen food from them.

For many years, archaeologists have been excavating at a site near Dmanisi in Georgia, where they have found evidence that ancient humans – sometimes put in the species Homo erectus – were present about 1.8 million years ago. The Dmanisi humans provide the earliest fossil evidence yet found of hominins outside Africa.

But as ancient humans moved out of Africa, it looks like they encountered prehistoric hunting dogs that were moving into Africa, because the remains of one such dog has now been unearthed at Dmanisi.

Saverio Bartolini-Lucenti at the University of Florence, Italy, and his colleagues analysed the remains, which came from a young adult Eurasian hunting dog (Canis (Xenocyon) lycaonoides), an extinct species of hunting dog related to modern African hunting dogs (Lycaon pictus).

“Picture an African hunting dog, but stouter with long limbs like an Irish wolfhound, but not so thin,” says Bartolini-Lucenti.

This particular animal would have lived about 1.8 million years ago, making it the earliest ever found in Europe.

These wild dogs are believed to have originated in Asia, spreading into and across Europe and Africa between about 1.8 and 0.8 million years ago.

“Finding it in Dmanisi – which is an important site at the verge, the border of three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe) – is interesting because it is at a timeframe where we didn’t have any occurrences of this form,” says Bartolini-Lucenti.

Modern African hunting dogs have adapted to consume their prey very quickly before it can be stolen by larger, stronger predators, such as lions and hyenas. The Eurasian hunting dogs may have interacted with early humans in a similar way, says Bartolini-Lucenti, with the humans scaring off the dogs to steal their prey.

Working out how two ancient species interacted is difficult, “especially when the fossil record is poor”, says Marco Cherin at the University of Perugia in Italy. “But I am confident that the record from Dmanisi may offer new surprises in the future, and this paper represents a good beginning.”

Journal reference: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-92818-4

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