Man originated in Africa. The whole lineage of apes from which we and all the other human species descended was in Africa, a sister lineage to the apes that gave us the chimpanzee and the bonobo.
But man’s first domestic animal was not of Africa at all. The large pack-hunting wolf roamed the great expanses of Eurasia, and it was only when certain Eurasian hunters began to incorporate wolves into their societies that we began the process of domestication.
For nearly two million years, human ancestors and the ancestors of the wild dog lived throughout Africa. There was never an attempt to bring these dogs to heel, and there was never attempt to reach out to that species.
The question remains of why African wild dogs were never domesticated, and part of the answer lies in their nervous nature. I am reminded of Martin Clunes’s A Man and His Dogs. Clunes ended his two part documentary with a visit to Tony Fitzjohn’s African wild dog project, and at one point, Clunes is asked to pick up a tranquilized African wild dog, while making certain that the jaws are positioned well away from his body. These dogs react and react quickly.
These dogs live as quite persecuted mesopredators in an intact African ecosystem that includes lions and spotted hyenas. Yes, this animal that kills large game with a greater success rate than any other African predator is totally the underdog in a land so dominated by the great maned cat and the spotted bone-crusher.
Their lives must be spent hunting down quarry and then bolting down meat as fast as they can before the big predators show up to steal it.
The current thinking is the first African wild dog ancestor to appear in Africa was Lycaon sekowei. This species lived in Africa from 1.9 to 1 million years ago, which is roughly the same time frame in which the first human ancestors began to consume meat readily. It was very likely that a major source of meat consumed by these ancestors came from scavenging. Homo habilis has been des cribed as a very serious scavenger, as was Homo erectus.
Both Homo habilis and erectus were contemporaries of Lycaon sekowei, and one really thinks about it, these early humans would have been very interested in the comings and goings of the great predators. Of all the predators to drive off kills, it is obvious that a pack of wild dogs would be easier to drive off than just about any other predators that were evident in Africa at the time.
So for at least 1.9 million years, African wild dogs evolved knowing that humans of any sort were bad news. They may have inherited an instinct towards antipathy toward humans, and thus, there never was any chance for us to develop relationships such as those that have been observed with wolves and hunter-gatherer people.
I think this played a a much bigger role in reason why man never tried to domesticate African wild dogs. One should also keep in mind that wolves in Eurasia were also mesopredators in that ecosystem. Darcy Morey and Rujana Jeger point out that Pleistocene wolves functioned as mesopredators in which their numbers were likely limited by cave lions, archaic spotted hyenas, and various forms of machariodont. They were probably under as much competition from these predators as the ancestral African wild dogs were under from the guild of super predators on their continent.
What was different, though, is the ancestral wolves never evolved in an enviroment which scavenging from various human species was a constant threat, so they could develop behaviors towards humans that were not always characterized by extreme caution and fear.
We were just novel enough for wolves to consider us something other than nasty scavengers, and thus, we could have the ability to develop a hunting symbiosis as is described in Mark Derr’s book and also Pierotti and Fogg’s.
It should also be noted that African wild dogs do not have flexible societies. In wolf societies, there are wolves that manage to reproduce without forming a pair bond, simply because when prey is abundant, it is possible for wolves other than the main breeding female to whelp and rear puppies. These females have no established mates, and they breed with male wolves that have left their natal packs and live on the edges of the territories of established packs. In the early years of the Yellowstone reintroduction, many packs let these females raise their pups that were sired by the wanderers, and one famous wolf (302M) wound up doing this most of his life, siring many, many puppies. I think that what humans did in their initial relationships with wolves was to allow more wolves to reproduce in this fashion, which opens up the door for more selective breeding than one would get from wolves that are more pair-bonded.
In African wild dogs, one female has the pups. If another female has puppies, hers are confiscated by the main breeding female and usually starve to death.
The wolf had the right social flexibility and the right natural history for humans form relationships with them, which the African wild dog was lacking.