Matt Hill. (U-I photo)

It’s said dogs are a man’s best friend, but for how long? A University of Iowa anthropologist says canines have been companions to humankind for perhaps 22,000 years.

U-I Professor Matt Hill is delivering a public lecture tonight on the ever-evolving relationship between people and their pooches. Hill says he understands why many dog owners don’t even like to call themselves “owners” anymore, rather, they’re “pet parents.”

“They’re really a member of the family right now and they are kind of ingrained in our lives and in our homes and are kind of treated like little people, basically,” Hill says. “Even though we have all these pets, they’re still doing some of the same jobs they’ve always done. They’re workers, they help us with hunting or carrying stuff.” Hill is studying the origins of Native North American dogs and their roles in our lives over millennia. Ancient people who lived in what’s now Iowa had canine companions much as we still do in the modern industrial society, though there’s been a significant change in the past century.

“We have had this kind of mental shift of how we think of pets and it’s really actually quite recent,” Hill says. “If you go back to before World War Two, some rich people had pets but really, dogs were just kind of feral animals. They’d run around and people would interact with them and hang out with them but they wouldn’t live in their homes.”

Dogs are now of great importance in our daily lives, he says, moving from being a humble pet to absolutely being included in formal family photos and a stocking on the fireplace mantle at Christmas. “We have been burying them in graves to memorialize their passing for as long as there’s been dogs,” Hill says. “While certain things change, and we’re dressing them up in clothes and feeding them gourmet food now, the relationship with the dog has shockingly not changed as much as we might have thought.”

While humankind has evolved in myriad ways over the past 22,000 years, we’ve also manipulated the DNA of dogs to suit us. “There’s probably on the order of 200 different breeds, big dogs, little dogs, long-legged dogs, short dogs, little tails, big tails,” Hill says. “What’s weird about our relationship, or unusual, is that we’ve really manipulated the dog to have it look — and in many ways act — the way we want it to.”

Those tiny teacup-sized critters some women carry in their purses? That’s nothing new, Hill says, as weensie lapdogs date back to Roman times, perhaps even further. Hill is delivering tonight’s U-I “Science Cafe” from 5-6 p.m. at Fuel Coffee in Mount Vernon. Admission is free.

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