“We all know the adage that dogs are man’s best friend. And we’ve all heard heartwarming stories about dogs who save their owners—waking them during a fire or summoning help after an accident. Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows the amazing, almost inexpressible warmth of a dog’s companionship and devotion. But it just might be that dogs have done much, much more than that for humankind. They may have saved not only individuals but also our whole species, by “domesticating” us while we domesticated them.
One of the classic conundrums in paleoanthropology is why Neandertals went extinct while modern humans survived in the same habitat at the same time. (The phrase “modern humans,” in this context, refers to humans who were anatomically—if not behaviorally—indistinguishable from ourselves.) The two species overlapped in Europe and the Middle East between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago; at the end of that period, Neandertals were in steep decline and modern humans were thriving. What happened?
…In every respect, modern humans surpassed Neandertals. In fact, the
greater success of modern humans was so clear that… the human population increased tenfold over
the 10,000-year overlap period. Modern humans thrived and Neandertals
did not—even though Neandertals had lived in the European habitat for
about 250,000 years before modern humans “invaded.” Why weren’t
Neandertals better adapted to their environment than the newcomers?
There is no shortage of hypotheses. Some favor climate change, others
a modern-human advantage derived from the use of more advanced hunting
weapons or greater social cohesion. Now, several important and disparate
studies are coming together to suggest another answer, or at least
another good hypothesis: The dominance of modern humans could have been
in part a consequence of domesticating dogs—possibly combined with a
small, but key, change in human anatomy that made people better able to
communicate with dogs.” (American Scientist).