A new photo from the Powerhouse Museum every day
The dog that is the “horse” to this young cowboy seems incredibly tolerant. His rider holds onto his collar, while the dog seems to wait patiently for the photograph to be taken (somewhat counter to traditional wisdom, suggesting never to work with dogs or children).
Looking closely at the image reveals the whites of the dog’s eyes are revealed. A recent article in America Scientist argues that the domestication of dogs might have actually helped humans survive while Neandertals declined.
“We all know the adage that dogs are man’s best friend. And we’ve all heard heartwarming stories about dogs who save their owners—waking them during a fire or summoning help after an accident. Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows the amazing, almost inexpressible warmth of a dog’s companionship and devotion. But it just might be that dogs have done much, much more than that for humankind. They may have saved not only individuals but also our whole species, by “domesticating” us while we domesticated them.”
The article goes further, suggesting that the sclerae, or the ‘whites’ of human eyes, might have evolved to be white (instead of the darker colours that primate sclerae are) in order to better communicate with dogs.
Another way of looking at this phenomenon is that the white sclerae became universal among humans because it enabled them to communicate better not only with each other but also with dogs. Once dogs could read a human gaze signal, they would have been even more useful as hunting partners. No genetic study has yet confirmed the prevalence or absence of white sclerae in Paleolithic modern humans or in Neandertals. But if the white sclera mutation occurred more often among the former—perhaps by chance—this feature could have enhanced human-dog communication and promoted domestication. Although some genetic analyses have suggested that modern humans and Neandertals interbred, even the highest estimates of cross-breeding involve very low levels of genetic exchange that might have been inadequate to spread the white sclera trait among Neandertals.
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.
It certainly looks like the dog in the photograph is well domesticated but it’s possible that he is simply training the boy who sits astride as well.
The photograph is a glass negative, quarter plate photograph, taken Tom Lennon, Sydney, Australia, 1932-1947.
Photography by Tom Lennon
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Post by Suse Cairns, Digital Services volunteer.