Patt Morrison for June 5, 2012

Was the key to human survival a man’s best friend?

Eyes for hunting

New research indicates that dogs may have been able to follow homo sapiens eye direction in order to help them hunt. (From top to bottom: primate eyes, human eyes, dog eyes.)

Why did homo sapiens thrive when Neanderthals didn’t? Maybe the answer lies in our four-legged best friends.

Pat Shipman for the American Scientist suggests that humans domesticating dogs might be the reason humans made it through history while past species didn’t. Beyond companionship and loyalty, dogs are also fierce hunters, which could have helped early humans survive.

But why were humans and dogs able to communicate on hunts when Neanderthals couldn’t? It’s all in the eyes. Humans’ white eyeballs, or sclerae, gave dogs a visual indication to where humans were looking towards. Other primates like Neanderthals had dark sclerae, darker-colored skin and concealing eyelids, which made tracking eyesight much more difficult. Once dogs could read where humans were gazing, dogs became even more useful hunting partners.

“Humans love to look into their dogs’ eyes to “read” their emotions. Dogs apparently feel the same. Maybe—just maybe—this reciprocal communication was instrumental in the survival of our species,” Dr. Shipman says.


Pat Shipman, professor emerita of anthropology, Pennsylvania State University; contributor, American Scientist; author of "Femme Fatale; Love, Lies, and the Unknown Life of Mata Hari"

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