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Caring for pets shaped human evolution

According to a recent study, domesticating animals may have been vital to human evolution as it spurred on essential activities like tool-making and language.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2010 13:36 IST

Dogs, cats, cows and other domesticated animals may have been vital to human evolution, a new theory suggests.

The uniquely human habit of taking in and employing animals —even competitors like wolves — spurred on human tool-making and language, which have both driven humanity’s success, paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman of Penn State University said.

“Wherever you go in the world, whatever ecosystem, whatever culture, people live with animals,” Discovery News quoted Shipman.

For early humans, taking in and caring for animals would seem like a poor strategy for survival. “On the face of it, you are wasting your resources. So this is a very weird behaviour,” Shipman said.

But it’s not so weird in the context something else humans were doing about 2.6 million years ago: switching from a mostly vegetarian diet to one rich in meat. This happened because humans invented stone hunting tools that enabled them to compete with other top predators. Quite a rapid and bizarre switch for any animal, Shipman said. “We shortcut the evolutionary process,” Shipman said, adding, “We don’t have the equipment to be carnivores.”

So we invented the equipment, learned how to track and kill, and eventually took in animals who also knew how to hunt — like wolves and other canines. Others, like goats, cows and horses, provided milk, hair and, finally, hides and meat. Managing all of these animals — or just tracking them — requires technology, knowledge and ways to preserves and convey information. So languages had to develop and evolve to meet the challenges.

Tracking game has even been argued to be the origin of scientific inquiry, said Peter Richerson, professor emeritus in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California.

There have also been genetic changes in both humans and our animals, Shipman argues. For the animals those changes developed because human bred them for specific traits, like a cow that gives more milk or a hen that lays more eggs. But this evolutionary influence works both ways.

The theory has been published in the latest issue of Current Anthropology.

First Published: Aug 12, 2010 12:49 IST