I have not yet been asked to review the new film Alpha, which is a story about early dog domestication. I have not seen the film yet, but I do want to see it.
I do think we need to get beyond the Coppinger model for dog domestication, and I think there have been some serious attempts recently, but I’m not going to play around with that right now.
Instead, I’m going play around with some speculative domestication reverie. Forgive me my flights of fancy. I must play around a bit.
Let’s say that domestication didn’t involve wolves at all. Let’s say it happened with a very different canid.
And you really can’t get more different from wolves than bat-eared foxes are. Bat-eared foxes are odd little creatures. They are intensely social foxes that live almost entirely upon harvester termites. They do eat other things, and they have even been known to scavenge carrion. But most of what they eat is harvester termites.
Let’s say that somewhere in East Africa some 50,000 years ago, a wandering band of nomad came into the land, but found the whole countryside devoid of game. The only quadruped messing about the scene were several bands of bat-eared foxes.
And the hunters speared the foxes and ran them down and roasted their bodies on campfires and ate away at their manky fox flesh and hoped the spirits would bring forth a kudu or an impala from the bush.
So for many weeks, the people hunted the bat-eared foxes, and they choked down the fox meat.
But then the fox numbers dwindled, and the disgusting pains of hunger swept through the people. And the babies starved to death, and the children grew gaunt in the piercing sun.
And so the hunters set out on a big journey into the rising sun hoping that they would some place so wondrous as to have plentiful hoofed game.
One hunter, though, knew of a little trick that he’d learned from the hot days of fox chasing in the sun. He knew that the bat-eared foxes like to hang near the termite nests, and he knew that if he staked out one big termite nest, he’d eventually run into a fox.
For two hot days he sat in silence. But on the nightfall of that second day, he the hoary gray form of a bat-eared fox. It was a vixen, and she was all heavy with milk.
Her form was gaunt and tight, and he teats were all swollen with the milk. And the hunter felt pity for her, and so he could not cast his spear upon her.
He sat there watching as she picked up the termites and marveled her rapid mastication. Rare is the hunter who can avoid watching his quarry and empathizing with it. It is man’s ability to empathize with an animal that ultimately makes him great hunter. It is his ability enter into the animal’s mind and see its ways and its habits as the animal sees it.
But he still can kill it and kill it with skill. It’s just that every once in a while, the empathy subsumes the hunter, and he feels that odd profound kinship with the animal. It is a feeling I have felt so profoundly on my own hunts, and it is one that I know has made me pass up more than a few shots. And these are the feelings I do not wish to lose. If I do, I will be a monster, not a fully human hunter.
So the hunter sat and watched the vixen eating the termites, and he let her pass. He then followed her tracks through the arid country. He kept his distance back on the trail, hoping that he would not spook her.
He followed her out of nothing more than curiosity, and as he followed her, he noticed the cloven hoofs of a kudu. The fox and the kudu were following the same trail, so the hunter knew that if he tired of his little fox tracking, he might be able to get on a kudu trail and bring home some nice meat for the band.
As he followed the trail, the kudu sign grew fresher and fresher. And out of the bush, a young kudu materialized out of the heat waves. Both hunter and kudu were suprised to encounter each other, but the hunter knew to throw his spear. It hit home, and the kudu ran and ran. The hunter followed its blood trail, and then found the beast lying in its death throes.
He dispatched the kudu with a simple blow to the head, and it became meat in very short order.
The hunter covered his kill and began the journey back to where he had left his companions. He had dropped a kudu bull, and they would soon have food to eat.
But he had to make his way carefully home, for the stench of blood could bring in lions and hyenas. So he started homeward, when he sensed presence of another being staring at him.
When he turned to look for his stalker, he was shocked to find the vixen standing upon a little boulder. She was transfixed by him, and he was amazed by her.
He turned to walk away, and the bat-eared fox squall-barked. He turned to look in her direction. He waved a blessing at her, and then turned to walk again. The vixen squall-barked again, this time with frantic intent.
The hunter turned to look at the fox, but then another movement caught his eye, He turned his head to make his eyes register upon the form before him, and then he realized that a young male lion had come to stalk him. It had been trailing the wounded kudu, and now, it had come upon a bit of human flesh. All it had to do was lie in wait, and there would be a kill.
The hunter stood tall on his legs and reached for his spear. He had but one opportunity to make the lion fall as it began to charge, and he knew that he had to make it count. Otherwise, he would be lion’s meat.
He made his spear aim dead on the lion, and as the beast began its horrific charge, the hunter steeled his nerves and began his spear cast. It home just as the lion’s charge reached within ten feet of him. The arrow hit the lion lungs, and her ran off in terror to die the death of a mortally wounded beast.
But the hunter lived. And he owed his survival to the little squall-barks of the bat-eared vixen.
He just began to make his way home when he herd the sound of many hoof-beats. All around him were vast herd of zebra and wildebeest. And there were many kudu and impala flitting about.
In his journey following the bat-eared fox, he had accidentally stumbled onto some game rich country, and he had to bring his people here.
And he had to make them thank the fox.
And so these people survived a long bout of famine all thanks to their guardian spirit, a little bat-eared fox.
And so the legend was passed through all the people’s children and their children and their children’s children. And the people came to revere the fox, and bring the kits into their villages and make them their guardians and good luck talismans.
And soon there were whole populations of bat-eared fox that lived in villages and ate people food along with their normal insectivory.
And they followed the people out of Africa into Eurasia, where they diversified into so many forms.
And the bat-eared fox is found on every island and on every continent where people exist.
Some herd our chickens and ducks. Others keep malaria mosquitoes at bay, while others rat as proper terriers do in our present reality.
But in this reality, man’s best friend is the bat-eared fox, not the domesticated wolf. And wolves themselves never survived into the present era. It was too clunky and too churlish to fit into the world dominated by man, and it was fully extirpated from all the land.
And so I’ve laid out some silly reverie of speculative domestication. Forgive me my folly. I sometimes can’t help it.