The Founder Effect – no. 4


I hang my key ring on the wall as she makes her way around. Snout stiffly to the floorboards, her gait is loose and clumsy. Each step flops in a different way. She’s better at smelling than walking.

A dog’s sense of smell is thousands of times better than that of a human. This alone made the dog worth taming, although there were other advantages. They chase away vermin. They hear well and sleep lightly. They express and comprehend subtleties of emotion through eye contact. They smile at pleasure, are loyal, even delay gratification. Australian aborigines have a saying, “a three-dog night,” meaning a night so cold one needs to huddle with three dogs to stay warm enough to sleep. Sharing sleep is the ultimate intimacy, a manner of becoming one. It’s enough to make you wonder if humans domesticated dogs or if dogs will naturalize humans.

Having disappeared in a back room for a minute, she returns down the hallway, sniffing without looking up, still tracking the habits of my movements. She must know by now that this flat is no ordinary cave: that this will become her den, the place she will know as home. To my surprise I feel strangely accustomed to her presence and find myself empathizing in this new experience. I think, It must be odd to sense the world through smell. That one’s timeline of events, frames of reference, fragments of memories, emotions, traumas, are indexed in a catalogue of scents. Not words, nor images, but odors.

The adage that the dog is “man’s best friend” is certainly based on historical record. It was surely the first animal humans domesticated anywhere in the world, even if the chronology is debatable. A pair of German scientists at Tubingen University believes the earliest extant remains of a domesticated dog date back 14,100 years. The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka in the Vindhyan Mountains of central India are covered with prehistoric illustrations—the earliest might date to 13,000 BCE—that depict humans accompanied by dogs. A Swedish scientist and his research team, by analyzing mitochondrial DNA, determined that the “birthplace” (their word) of the domesticated dog was the Yangtze River basin precisely 16,300 years ago. In 2008, the Journal of Archaeological Science published a paper that claimed a cave in Belgium yielded a 31,700-year-old skull of a dog anatomically differentiated from a wolf. Some geneticists in America believe that the earliest split of dogs from wolves occurred 60,000-100,000 years ago. They keep retracing the line.

The problem with understanding the history of the dog is the fundamental misunderstanding of the history of species. 15,000 years ago, 30,000 years ago, humans lived precariously. Humans lived in caves, on plains, in forests. But ancestry is not a line; that is the myth of evolution. Evolution meanders, folds onto itself, billows—it is less a path than a tree. It branches off in many, many directions, most of which come to an end. Came to an end, long ago. And as such, those enclaves of humans, with their societies and their behaviors and their histories and their languages, died.

A romantic would imagine the dogs they left behind died of grief. But they didn’t. To survive, they undomesticated themselves. They rejoined the wolfpack, trickled back to the ocean, billowed. They threw the scientists off their scent.

Branches dropping leaves. Pools drying up. Rampant indifference. The Founder Effect.

In the south of France, after the Ardèche branches off the Rhone, there is a natural monument known as Pont d’Arc, an arched bridge that the water carved out of the stone. Nearby is the site of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a place that, until it was discovered in 1994, had been sealed by a landslide for 25,000 years.

Inside Chauvet Cave are hundreds of rock paintings, almost all of which depict animals. It is universally acknowledged that these are the oldest known cave paintings in the world. There are images of horses galloping in even files, prides of lions intent on a kill, floating wisent and soaring owls, even rhinoceroses. Many of the animals are now extinct: aurochs, cave hyenas, woolly mammoths. The pictures are scarred by claw marks left by cave bears, as if so vivid the bears were fooled and tried to snatch them for prey.

Other images there are more challenging to define. Lines and dots appear as decoration. Butterfly patterns seem to mimic dreams. Negative handprints—where pigment was spat around the silhouettes—suggest the concept of signature.

There is even an image of a mythical creature. It has the top of a bison, the bottom of a woman. A chimera. A proto-Minotaur.

Dating the treasures of Chauvet Cave has been imprecise given how much time has passed. It is known with certainty that the cave was first inhabited and decorated at least before 28,000 BCE. Studies have been conducted, remains radiocarbon dated, papers written. But the numbers tossed about skip over a hundred generations in the span of a sentence. Perhaps the paintings were first issued 35,000 years ago. Or maybe 32,000 years ago. Apparently it is hard to say.

However, there is one note of poetic justice to be heard over the din of scientific squabbles. Chauvet Cave had a soft, clay floor, and the one trace of human presence that can be dated with accuracy was left in that ground. Beneath black torch stains on the higher rock, where the walls are alive with the fauna of another world, there are footprints of a child who passed through this gallery, and it is known that the prints were left 26,000 years ago. A young subject of the Gravettian culture from the Upper Paleolithic era, better known as the Stone Age.

It is also known that the child was not alone. For in the clay, alongside the footprints, are the paw prints of the child’s dog.

She stumbles onto my lap, licks my fingers. Tomorrow let’s go buy that crazy bird.

I think I will name her Eve.