How did man and dog become such close friends? Albert Hughes’s film Alpha asks and answers that question. It stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as Keda, a boy who is separated from his tribe during a hunt. Injured and alone, he finds himself forcing an unlikely alliance with one of the wolves that initially stalked him.

Alpha promises to be a dramatic look at just what life could have been like at the end of the last Ice Age, and how the actions of one child could have changed the course of history.

Welcome To The Ice Age

[Credit: Sony Pictures]

Alpha is set thousands of years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene era. In many senses the world at that time would have been immediately familiar to us. The continents had moved to their current positions, for example. But a lower global temperature meant most of the Earth’s water was locked up in vast ice sheets, and as a result sea level was far lower. It’s believed humans survived by concentrating themselves in Africa. As the temperature warmed and their climate changed, they began to spread out across land bridges into Europe and even the Americas. These land bridges don’t exist today, as they’re covered by the higher seas.

Alpha seems to be based in a time when the world is beginning to warm again, so it’s possible this tribe has migrated to Europe. Still, vegetation was sparse and limited, with scattered conifers and some broadleaf trees. As the global temperature warmed, and the permafrost melted, grasses began to spread. Many animal species were very different; woolly mammoths and sabertooth tigers, both visible in the Alpha trailer, roamed free.

Nobody’s quite sure how these creatures died out, although one theory is that the early humans hunted them to extinction. That seems to be the approach Alpha is hinting at, with Keda separated from his tribe when a hunting expedition goes wrong. The latest research suggests an asteroid impact around 13,000 years ago was the final straw for animals like the woolly mammoths, so this film is presumably based sometime before that catastrophic event.

Man’s Best Friend

[Credit: Sony Pictures]

As far as we know, wolves first began to interact with humans around 20,000 years ago, at the height of the last Ice Age. With food becoming scarce, it’s believed one group of wolves began to move nearer to human camps, scavenging for leftovers. As researcher Krishna Veeramah told the BBC, “those wolves that were tamer and less aggressive would have been more successful at this.”

That makes sense; these slightly tamer wolves wouldn’t have been seen as so great a threat, and thus chased away from the camp. That isn’t to say even this kind of wolf pack wouldn’t have hunted down a lone stray human, as in Alpha. The film really does seem to be true to the latest scientific research.

Of course, the reality is that we simply don’t know when and how early humans and dogs interacted. Alpha presents one possibility, that a wounded child and an injured wolf became close companions, and from there helped one another to survive. Presumably, when Keda returns to his tribe, his people will see the advantage in building a similar relationship with other wolves, recognizing that it would help them with their hunts. Incredibly, DNA evidence has proved that all modern canines are descended from just the one wolf pack, believed to be European in origin. So in Alpha, the star of the show really is a boy who changes the world – and who forges a friendship between man and dog that runs right up to the present day.

Alpha opens on August 17.