Dogs and the Hands That Feed: The Utility of Dogs in Hunter-Gatherer Societies

Publishing Author : Jeffrey Vadala

Date Published : Unknown


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Human Relations
Area Files
Cultural information for education and research
Dogs and the Hands That Feed: The Utility of Dogs in
Hunter-Gatherer Societies
Figure 1. A wolf (Canis lupus) howling by Jim Peaco 2004 (public domain).
By Jeffrey Vadala
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This question can be explored using eHRAF collections in two ways. First,
researchers can use archaeological data (found in eHRAF Archaeology) to
examine evidence for dogs in ancient societies. Second, researchers can use
ethnographic data in eHRAF World Cultures to better understand how huntergatherers
use and live with dogs. That being said, the environment, societies, and
dog phenotypes have all changed dramatically since ancient times (for a complete
description of the theoretical issues involved see Hayter 1994). The ecological
relationships recent hunter-gatherers groups have had with dogs may shed light on
the use and impact of dogs in ancient societies with similar environments.
Figure 2. Two Hadzabe men in Tanzania walking, carrying bows and today’s catch.
Two dogs follow them. Photo by Andreas Lederer. CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia.
With this consideration in mind, let’s look at some examples of dog use in recent
hunter-gatherer societies living in a few different environments. Exploring the utility
of the human-dog relationship may help us understand why we first invited them
into our lives.
When looking at hunter-gatherers today, we can see that dogs are used in a variety
of hunting activities. The Mbuti use dogs when hunting in the tropical forests of the
Democratic Republic of Congo. Dogs accompany hunters who carry either spears
or bows to take down prey (similar to figure 2). Given their much more powerful
sense of smell, dogs are especially useful in helping hunters locate game. To keep
up with these speedy tracker allies, Mbuti hunters attach wooden bells to them.
After these dogs help their hunters find prey, they must carefully cooperate with
humans to successfully take down the animal (Harako 1976: 54). For example,
after the Mbuti form a circle around the animal, the trained dog is directed to enter
the encircled area and flush the prey out of the bush and into the hunter’s sights.
The hunters then have to take care not to hit the dog with their arrows. This is a
common tactic used with small animals such as birds and mongoose.

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Figure 3. An artist’s representation of a Tahltan Bear
Dog by Pharaoh Hound. CC by 3.0 via Wikimedia.
In North America, many
hunter-gatherer societies used
dogs as pack animals. By
toting the group’s belongings,
dogs could extend the range of
a hunting group or speed up
the movement of families
changing their dwelling sites.
Among the Kaska, for
example, dogs known as
“Tahltan bear dogs” (Figure 3)
provided an extremely useful
service by porting hunters’
implements, such as blankets
and axes. Because they were
so useful, families would
frequently own two to five dogs. Kaska society also used different dog phenotypes
for different purposes, employing the stronger and larger dogs as pack animals,
and the leaner, faster dogs as hunters (Honigmann and Wendell 1949:55). The
brawny pack dogs were rigged with travois (dragged work harnesses) to carry
items as needed (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Dog with a travois in an Assiniboine camp on the Upper Missouri. Painting
by Karl Bodmer circa 1845 (public domain).
Farther north, the Round Lake Ojibwa of Northern Ontario used dog teams to hunt
and lay traps in snowy climates (Rogers 1962). Dog teams allowed the hunters to
carry many large traps that could be placed over expansive territories. For both
groups, using dog teams provided hunters an adaptive advantage in their harsh
environment. Because the snowy landscape was taxing and game was hard to

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come by, they often had to move and travel long distances to capture enough
protein for survival (Rogers 1962). When attached to toboggans, these powerful
dogs made it possible for hunters to bring back large amounts of hunted game to
their families.
In all the cases above, utilitarian human-dog relationships provided a significant
advantage to hunter-gatherers. From these examples alone, we see how dogs can
be very useful for hunting, carrying resources, and transportation over vast
distances in harsh environments. Additionally, the benefits of human-dog
relationships shine through even more when one considers that, relative to
humans, dogs only require modest amounts of food, care, and shelter. Although we
do not currently understand precisely how this beneficial relationship between
humans and dogs began, these examples provide clues for the way that dogs may
have been useful in a variety of different environments.

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