Chapter 17: Ice Age Stanley

Evolution of a Bark – a frozen cave bear – Werner Herzog – the life and habits of the Pleistocene Cave Bear described – dogs from wolves – what’s a Smilodon got to smile about? – Stanley’s good deed – and the treat he wins – domestic chores finally done

However annoying Stanley’s barking is – and, for the record, I have to say that really he doesn’t bark all that much – twenty thousand years ago we’d have been very glad of his bark indeed. In fact, we’d probably have kept him for that very purpose, along with his comedy walk, his empathetic expression, his crazy fur, his lolloping good humour and the rest of it.

The only reason I mention any of this is because on the news the other day I saw that some reindeer herders in northern Siberia had come across the carcass of a frozen cave bear. It was incredible. The whole bear, right there, emerging from the thawing permafrost with a terrifying snarl on its lips. (Mind you, I’m the same. If I don’t get the full forty thousand I’m a real grouch).

I remember seeing a documentary by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet caves in southern France. Apart from the fantastic animal paintings they’d found there, and the handprints of the artists who’d made them some thirty thousand years ago, I remember Herzog talking about the skull of cave bear. It had been put up on a plinth of rock, very much like an altar. And there were claw marks in the cave, too, where other bears had come to make their own contribution to the murals, or maybe to protest about their friend being made into a god. It’s hard to know from this distance – which is a point Herzog makes using an albino crocodile (you have to see the film).

Anyway, apparently these cave bears grew to quite a size – eleven feet or more when they stood up and waved their paws about, which they must’ve done a lot, especially when you accidentally went into the wrong cave, looking for a nice place to do some painting in, or living, coming to that. And then of course, the cave bear was omnivorous, which meant that although a pawful of berries or a scooched salmon or two would be more than welcome, a nice, fresh, screaming human would’ve been a particular treat.

Seeing how enormous the fangs on that icy bear were, I can imagine having a barky dog around to let you know if one was sneaking up would’ve been very handy indeed.

The theory is, of course, that dogs are domesticated wolves. They reckon it happened about fourteen thousand years ago, because there’s direct fossil evidence of dogs being buried with their owners. It may be that wolves started hanging round human camps, intrigued by the noise and the light and the delicious cooking smells. And I can corroborate this theory anecdotally, based on Stanley’s intense interest in the slightest sound of cupboards being opened in the kitchen – although cupboards didn’t appear in the fossil record until quite recently, of course. The humans may well have encouraged these feral but inquisitive animals, tempting them with scraps, laughing at them when they fell asleep and twitched as if they were still hunting or something. And after a few generations, maybe some of these wolf-dogs started tagging along on the hunt, and earned rewards for flushing out deer, or corralling aurochs, and generally making the whole thing more of a day out.

And then or course, there were the bears. And the saber-toothed tigers. Which, to be honest, I never did get. I mean – why would you need teeth like that, except maybe to impress? But at what cost to your table manners?

(I just Googled that. Apparently saber-toothed tigers weren’t actually tigers and were more properly called Smilodon. A Smilodon had teeth specially adapted to ambush big prey like bison and camels, biting them in a special way that scientists can’t agree on, except to say it wasn’t all that pleasant. Which makes the name Smilodon seem darkly ironic.)

I think Stanley would’ve been in his element, twenty thousand years ago. The earth was still frozen in the last great ice age. Woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths were hulking about. There were packs of wolves chasing down giant elk through the snowy forests. In fact, everything was giant, so Stanley would’ve fitted right in, especially his ears. I can imagine him, sleeping towards the front of the cave, twitching happily on his pelt, lulled by the flickering embers of the fire – until he suddenly sits straight up and starts barking, the dreadful hoooof-hooooofing echoing around the cave, and everyone groaning and stirring, swearing and cussing like flint-knappers, throwing quern stones and mammoth shoes and eagle bone flutes at him, until someone has the grace to realise that actually, he’s just saved them all from a particular savage cave bear, who’d been tippy-clawing up the slope in an effort to claim back its home. And then Stanley gets a great deal of cuddles and fuss, and a Pleistocene treat, being his favourite – the femur of a Moa (very low fat, high in magnesium, great for healthy teeth and bones and shiny coat, the only drawback being it’s so big you can’t pick it up). And the cave bear would grouch away along the glacier line, and trip, and get more completely frozen than those vegetarian burgers you have absolutely no memory of buying, and which only emerge twenty thousand years later when you finally get round to defrosting the fridge.

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