Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Domestication Stories: Talking to Animals

(Content Warning: graphic description of hunting and butchering)

When the faint howl rose from over the ridge, SmallWatcher and the rest of the nearby Family leapt to their feet. They'd been wandering together along the bottom of a ravine not far from the den,  alternating between lounging and halfheartedly digging for mice. The last big kill had been days ago, and they hadn't scented any Prey of decent size since then. They were all starting to get hungry, and the the howls were a very welcome sound. It was GreenPaw's voice. He'd found Prey.

SmallWatcher whined in delight and danced around Aunt, begging her to start the run. The oldest in the Family, and the best hunter, everyone watched to see what she would do, even Father. Aunt lifted her nose to the wind. There was no fresh scent there yet, but she must have decided to trust GreenPaw, for she started off at a trot toward the sound of his voice. SmallWatcher stayed right on Aunt's heels, just far enough back to avoid annoying her. The rest of the Family spread out on either side (except for those who remained with Mother back at the den).

As they crested the ridge, Aunt suddenly let out an excited wuff and broke into a gallop, turning downhill. A moment later, SmallWatcher caught the scent as well: an aurochs, not far away, running alone, its sweat and fear a delicious beacon billowing up from the forest below. The chase commenced. Every muscle stretched and trembling, the scent of prey hot in her nostrils, breath burning in her throat, the feeling her Family around her, joined in the same joyous motion, hunger pangs forgotten.

Soon, she could hear it - like an entire herd of deer crashing through the brush. Finally, she caught a glimpse of the prey with her eyes. A flash of black through branches. Her stride faltered for a step. This was no calf or cow, but a full grown male, with two enormous horns. Just like the one that had killed an older Sibling this past winter. SmallWatcher and her litter siblings had been younger then, they mostly observed during that hunt. Aunt had cleverly chased the bull into a swamp, but even exhausted and mired down, it had still managed to hook its horns through VoleChaser's body. The Family stilled mourned him.

SmallWatcher's heart clenched, fear replacing excitement. It wasn't winter any longer, they weren't that desperate, were they? Surely there were easier prey to hunt today. But Aunt did not slow. She was running along side the prey, trying to pass it, get in front. SmallWatcher's heart gave another surge of fear, but she quickened her pace to catch up.

They broke out of the forest into the wide river valley filled with grass and low shrubs. Here it easier to see and smell, but also easier for the prey to outrun them. But the prey didn't run faster. In fact, it was slowing down. It dawned on SmallWatcher that it was far more exhausted than it should have been. It must have been running for far, far longer than the Family had been chasing him. Sweat had dried in salty streaks along its flanks, and blood dribbled from its nose and from a mysterious wound on its hind leg.

The whole family was running parallel to the prey now, keeping pace with ease. Aunt began to slow and veer toward it, staying just outside the range of the terrible weapons on its head. Greenpaw and Father were on the other side, mirroring Aunt's action, staying alongside without attacking. It swung its massive head back and forth, unsure if it should attack any of them. As it slowed further, Aunt took the opportunity to cross in front of it. It made a perfunctory swipe at her with the horns, but she was well out of range. The motion tired it even more (as Aunt knew it would) and it slowed to a limping walk.

The rest of the family followed Aunt's lead and started to circle the prey, taking turns to make feinting attacks. The prey snorted and swung his horns again and again, but the action did nothing but tire it more. Aunt and Father still weren't attacking yet, even though they had the prey trapped. SmallWatcher tucked up her tail with anxiety. Eventually, if they wanted to eat, they would have to attack for real, and someone would probably get hurt.

But before she could worry further, she suddenly caught another scent on the air. She froze in her tracks and jerked her head up. Father noticed, scented the air, and then trotted over to her. He rubbed against her shoulder reassuringly. Wait, watch. He trotted back to continue to circle the prey.

Smallwatcher walked away from the Family to stand on a rock. She had the best view when the Travelers arrived. They trotted out of the forest, from the same direction the chase had come from, slow but confident. It was her first time live-scenting a Traveler. Last autumn, when she was just old enough to start roaming the Family's territory, Aunt had showed her their empty camps near the river. Their live-scent was just as smokey as their cold camps, as if they carried fire with them under their skin, although they didn't look very imposing.  They were tall and gangling, not much bigger than a Family member. They had no horns or antlers or sharp hooves or large teeth, but they approached the prey without fear or hesitation.

The circle of the Family became a half circle, as they made way for the Travelers. Aunt, Father, and GreenPaw were wary, but not afraid or surprised by their arrival. Only SmallWatcher's litter siblings, who'd only been hunting for two seasons, were uncertain.

The prey lifted its head and swung around, eyes rolling,. This is what the it had been running from. It was more scared of them than it was of the Family. The Travelers stopped outside the range of his horns, and started a slow dance, shifting their weight from foot to foot, long sticks raised in their front hands. One of them began to sidle around to one side. The bull tensed, eyeing both of them, as if to choose which one to charge. Just then, Aunt raced forward and attacked the prey's flanks, tearing at them. I tensed. Was it time? Would the rest of the Family rush in? But no other family member joined her.

The prey bellowed and swung back around, kicking out, but she'd already let go and retreated. It was not a real attack, but a distraction. The two Travelers immediately took the opening as if they'd been waiting for it, leaping forward to stab their sharp sticks into the Prey's ribs and soft belly. They stuck there, deeply entrenched in flesh as the Travelers jumped back. The prey screamed and kicked, now at its most dangerous and unpredictable. Pain would bring renewed strength and bravery; It could attack any of them, now.

Each of the Travelers pulled another spear from their behind their backs, and the dance repeated itself, with one of them trying to hold its attention while the other circled around. Once again, the bull started to charge, and once again, Aunt bravely rushed into to attack its rear. This time, one spear went into the ribs behind the elbow, the other into the neck. The prey went down on its side, kicking and thrashing, its horns digging a deep furrow into the moss and dirt.

SmallWatcher twitched and whined in excitement. The prey was down! Now was the time the Family should rush in. But Aunt and Father had retreated again, and went back to just watching. The Travelers waited, too. They backed away and squatted on their heels, patient and unhurried.

Finally, after what felt like days, the prey lay completely still. One of the Travelers rose to his feet and circled around behind its head to pull out the spear from the neck. The food did not react, nor did it move when he gave one last thrust to the spine to make sure it was dispatched.

SmallWatcher marveled that the hunt was already over. The entire hunt had taken less than half a day. Some hunts of large animals took the Family days to complete. No one injured. And before them lay enough food to feed the family for two weeks. But would they get to eat any of it?

Saliva dripped from SmallWater's mouth. The scent of sweet blood and dark, rich offal filled the air.  but still, none of the family came forward to eat. Aunt and the rest of the family still paced in a rough half-circle, but slow now, at a further distance, eyeing the Travelers, and the Travelers eyed them back. But unlike if the situation had involved a lion or hyena, or a rival Family, Aunt and Father did not make any aggressive moves to claim the kill for their own. Everyone remained calm and watchful.

While the one kept watch, the other Traveler pulled a small stone from the animal skin around its middle and used it to cut into the skin on the auroch's hind leg. Two mighty blows from another, larger rock, and the lower leg was severed below the hock. He repeated the action for the other hind leg, and paused in his work long enough to suck some marrow from the end of the crushed leg bone. He tossed the second leg to his companion, who did the same. When he was finished, the dropped the leg to the ground. That's when Father made his move.

He rushed in and snatched up the leg. Both Travelers yelled, and the guard swung with his spear, but Father was already out of range. He took his prize deep in the grass to gnaw on, and in the moment of distraction Father, Aunt snatched up the other discarded leg and ran in the opposite direction. I listened with mouth-watering envy as she settled in the bushes to chew on it. My litter Sibling, FastPaws, whined and started to dart forward as well, but Aunt left her treasure long enough to block him, growling and snapping at him. Not yet. They are dangerous. Wait.

The Travelers ignored the Family as long as they stayed back, and continued to cut into the kill, slicing away at skin and tendon and muscle, until the entire hind quarter was separated from the rest of the body. The Traveler dragged the quarter off to the side by the flap of extra skin. By the time the sun began to set, the other hind quarter joined the first, and then a shoulder quarter, then more Travelers arrived.

 These ones carried more things. More sticks of all sizes; more animal skins wrapped around objects; more rock tools; more exotic scents. They dropped their things and milled around the food for awhile, chattering and waving their front limbs. Then they all sorted themselves and got to work. Some stood guard as others helped butcher, and others fiddled with their belongs, arranging sticks and animal hides in some pattern that SmallWatcher couldn't understand. SmallWatcher stared in wonder as one of them knelt and produced fire from the ground. This caused some excitement from her siblings, but when Aunt and Father continued to stay calm, they soon settled down.

None of them ate, until at one point, one of them emerged from the bloody center of the food with the liver.  SmallWatcher's favorite, though she rarely got a taste since Aunt, Mother, Father or older siblings usually got to it first. Everyone stopped work and passed chunks of liver around, each cutting off pieces small enough to put into their tiny mouths.

SmallWatcher couldn't stand it any longer. The scent of warm liver and blood were so close, even the alarming smell and crackle of the fire couldn't keep her away. She slunk down off the rock and inched toward the food. One of the Travelers shouted and pointed at her, and a couple guards came toward her, sticks raised. They were so close to her, they could have stabbed her with their spears with one lunge. They smelled exotic, dangerous; they carried on their bodies the relics of so many successful hunts - skins and tendons and bones and teeth and claws from all different animals, even teeth from a lion. She heard Father's distant growl and whine, but he wasn't coming close. SmallWatcher shivered with nerves, but didn't retreat. They hadn't attacked yet. And if there was even a chance...

Without thinking, she lay down on her belly, flattened her ears, and licked her lips beseechingly, chin almost touching the ground. She'd never seen anyone try to talk to other animals before. It felt odd, like play-bowing to a rock. But, SmallWatcher was the smallest in the Family, not counting the new pups; the last-born of a large litter, last to the teat as a pup, and last to the kill now that she was old enough to hunt. Begging was second nature to her.

It worked. They lowered their spears and looked at each other and chattered with their strange voices. And then, one of them flicked a small piece of liver at her feet. She gulped it down at once, possibly the best thing she'd ever eaten. Her actions elicited more chatter from them, and then another Traveler tossed a pair of vertebrate at her, still stuck together and covered in scraps of meat. She snatched it and ran back to her rock to chew on it. Her instincts told her to run much further away, but she sensed that her siblings wouldn't dare come and try to steal it if she stayed closer to the Travelers and their fire.

She was right: her Siblings never tried to steal her bones. She ate at her leisure, nibbling every last scrap of meat, and watched the Travelers work. When they finished their work, and had a mound of their butchered meat covered in a hide tarp, they - all except a guard - lay down near the fire to sleep.

Only then did Aunt and Father allow the rest of the Family to approach the food. Aunt's demeanor said, it's ok to eat now, as long as you stay away from them. And she seemed to be right - the guard watched them, but made no moves against them as they dragged away portions of food. Father, the strongest, grabbed the head. The Travelers had cut off the horns and scooped out the brain, but left all the face meat for the Family. There was also offal, all four lower legs, the pelvis and tail, big pieces of neck, some skin, many bones still coated in meat. There was plenty for everyone.

The Family stayed near the carcass most of the night, taking turns to drag bits away into the grass, gulping down the soft bits as fast as possible and gnawing on the bones. Aunt and Father were the first to leave, after they'd filled their bellies. They would go back and share the feast with Mother at the den.

The Siblings stayed until almost dawn, squabbling over bones and nibbling every scrap of meat they could, some of them carrying bones with them as they left. SmallWatcher was the last to leave. She nibbled on a rib and watched as the Travelers got up with the sun, buried their fire, and each took up a load of the meat to carry. They walked away, toward the river, probably to the camp that SmallWatcher had seen last year.

SmalWatcher stayed near the auroch's scattered bones until the last Traveler disappeared from view. They were returning to their den, just as SmallWatcher's Family returned to theirs. But they'd meet again, soon, out on the hunting fields.


SmallWatcher's story is set in Europe 200,000 years ago and the people she encounters are Neanderthals. Her clan wouldn't meet Homo sapiens, the humans who would eventually mold them into the dog we know today, for at least another 100,000 years, but it's very likely Neanderthals and other archaic humans started wolves on the path to domestication, simply by virtue of having the same habitat, prey sources, and sharing the wolfish traits of being opportunistic, adaptable, and curious.

Imagine how many of these encounters like what I write here must have happened over the millennia, and you can see how ancient humans could have naturally shaped wolf populations to be some degree of people-friendly, long before their "true" domestication by H. sapiens 35,000 years ago.

My series of 'domestication stories' are speculative, but are based on the most recent data we have on early people and wolvesScience used to believe that to domesticate the dog there had to be intent. It's hard to imagine selective breeding without an end goal in mind, but the more we learn, the more we understand that that's exactly how the dog (probably) came about. As canine historian Scottie Westfall puts it: "it had to be so easy, a caveman could do it". 


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Retrieverman said...

Very nice. It did have to be so easy that a caveman could do it!