We all know that dogs have been hanging around the campfire for a long, long time, and that as a result they have become quite distinct from their wolf ancestors. But now some researchers are positing that the human/dog connection goes way deeper than we ever beleived. In fact, dogs may have been an important clue in one of the biggest evolutionary mysteries in science: how and why did early humans thrive even as the Neanderthals disappeared?

From this story in the Atlantic:
One of the most compelling — and enduring — mysteries in archaeology concerns the rise of early humans and the decline of Neanderthals. For about 250,000 years, Neanderthals lived and evolved, quite successfully, in the area that is now Europe. Somewhere between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago, early humans came along. They proliferated in their new environment, their population increasing tenfold in the 10,000 years after they arrived; Neanderthals declined and finally died away. What happened? What went so wrong for the Neanderthals — and what went so right for us humans?

According to the story, some researchers now believe early humans may have had significant help from their recently domesticated friends. Anthropologist Pat Shipman argues that early humans owe much of their evolutionary success to the domestication of dogs, basically making early humans more efficient and effective predators, which in turn gave humans an important leg up on their Neanderthal rivals.

From the story: Shipman speculates that the affinity between humans and dogs manifested itself mainly in the way that it would go on to do for many more thousands of years: in the hunt. Dogs would help humans to identify their prey; but they would also work, the theory goes, as beasts of burden…The possible result, Shipman argues, was a virtuous circle of cooperation — one in which humans and their canine friends got stronger, together, over time.

The Atlantic piece is a great summary of the research and worth a read, but the original story on is a fascinating read as well and worth the time for anyone interested in our evolutionary relationship with dogs.