Dr. Lahtinen and her colleagues take competition out of the equation. In winter, ice age humans would have had to forego plants, depending on hunting. But people can’t survive on protein alone. Eventually they starve or get protein poisoning. They need fat, so they would have eaten primarily the fatty parts of prey, with some lean meat left over. Wolves, with different digestive systems, can live for quite a while on pure protein.
The researchers say in their paper that among human Arctic hunters, animal protein could have provided up to 45 percent of the calories needed in the winter. They also calculated the amount of protein in the prey available to wolves in the ice age, showing that they have protein “over the limits that humans can consume.” People and wolves hunt similar species, so if humans were consuming the same animals they would have excess protein from their kills.
Humans, including modern hunter-gatherers, have an odd habit of feeding other animals and keeping them, at least for a while. So the authors lean toward the idea of various human bands occasionally snatching a wolf puppy. Eventually, the two species grew closer together and the new dog-wolves became useful. Many thousands of years later, we have pandemic puppies.
The hypothesis is just that, an idea about what might have happened, not a demonstration of what did happen. But Naomi Sykes, a zoo-archaeologist at the University of Exeter in Britain, who reviewed the paper for publication, said she thought the researchers made two important points. “The first is their suggestion that there would have been minimal dietary competition between humans and wolves.” The second, she said, was that their hypothesis “flips the idea of domestication” to people feeding animals rather than raising them to eat.
She said archaeological finds indicate that the domestication of chickens, rabbits, horses and other animals may have begun with the animals being deliberately fed. In some of the earliest discoveries, she said, the ancient bones show that the animals were “being maintained, looked after and even worshiped rather than eaten.”