This weekend I finally got around to watching the movie Alpha. This is a story set in prehistory, about 20,000 BC. It’s about a boy who gets injured and separated from his hunting party, and ends up thrown together with an injured wolf. He takes care of the wolf, and they develop a bond. The idea is that we’re watching the beginning of the relationship between humans and dogs.
It’s a good movie. I enjoyed it, and highly recommend it if you’re looking for something fun to watch. But as much as I enjoyed it, I also noticed discrepancies with how anthropologists think societies at that time worked, and some issues with how wolves work. I think it’s fun to talk about these things. I’m not going to spoil anything, at least not anything that wouldn’t also have spoiled by watching the trailer, so if you haven’t seen it yet, this post should be safe.
The first thing worth noting, is that the movie shows the tribe living in a particular location. It’s plausible that was true for parts of the year, most likely the winter, but in general, hunter gatherer tribes moved around. While there are scattered and isolated pieces of evidence for early permanent settlements, my understanding is that they only become consistent after around 13,000-12,000 BC in the Middle East with Natufian culture.
The other thing that stood out to me is that the tribe had a leader. And it was implied that the tribal leader’s son might inherit that role. Most of the stuff I’ve read about hunter-gatherer cultures don’t indicate that those types of roles existed. These were likely egalitarian societies without any formal leadership. Hunter-gatherer culture actually seems to resist anyone attempting to put themselves into that kind of position. Someone might take on a leadership role temporarily to lead something like a hunting or war party, but that’s not what the movie portrays.
Of course, there’s a lot we don’t know about prehistoric cultures. Most of what I’m saying here reportedly comes from studying modern hunter-gatherer cultures. There’s no guarantee that prehistoric Europeans had a structure similar to the ones that colonialists came into contact with in the last few centuries. But the human cognitive package hasn’t had time to change that much in the last 20,000 years, so it seems reasonable to assume they were similar.
(Every time I make this kind of statement, someone weighs in about the relatively quick evolution of lactose tolerance, the ability of Tibetans to live in high altitude conditions, or other cases of recent evolution. But none of these represent fundamental changes in human nature.)
The movie implies that a wild wolf can be trained into acting more or less like a modern dog. Genetically, dogs are gray wolves. But a dog is not simply a tamed wolf. There have been many stories of people who tried to adopt wolves. A wolf is a much more difficult pet. It tries much harder and much more persistently than any dog to escape, is more difficult to train, needs a lot more space for exercise, and has a higher chance of turning on its owner.
Put another way, you can’t convert a live wolf into a dog. You can’t even take wolf cubs and raise them as pets and expect them to behave like modern dogs. Modern dogs are separated from wild wolves by 20,000-40,000 years of domestication. The early domestication of the dog likely took place across a large number of breeding generations. It’s unlikely to have been anything someone planned.
The scenario I’ve most commonly read is that dogs probably followed a commensal pathway. Packs of wolves likely started following bands of humans, living off heir refuse. Over several generations, the wolves more likely to stick around were the ones most comfortable being around humans, setting off a process of self selection. Humans also likely became increasingly more comfortable with them around. This process might have taken several centuries, possibly even millenia.
There may have been a first person to realize they could train a dog. And it seems plausible that first trained dog was female, since they’re generally easier to train than males. But training dogs everyone was used to having around likely was far less dramatic than taming a wolf straight from the wild. Of course, that would have made the story less entertaining, so the movie has some grounds for poetic license.
And who knows? It’s conceivable that someone could have run into an unusually compliant wolf. And as I noted above, there are enough uncertainties in our knowledge of prehistoric times to provide a space for the movie to work in. It enabled me to suspend my disbelief long enough to enjoy it.
Have you seen the movie? If so, what did you think about it? Or about the plausibility of its scenario?