This is the second part of a two-part series on the history of our relationship with canines. To read part one, click here.
In the last Dig It column, we explored the earliest domestication of dogs in Europe and Asia and learned that wolves began lingering around the periphery of human encampments hundreds of thousands of years ago and were fully domesticated between 13,000 and 36,000 years ago.
In this column, I wanted to explore the introduction of dogs, or canis familiaris, to North America specifically.
Unlike their continental counterparts, dogs did not independently evolve from wolves present in North America, but instead arrived already domesticated with humans as early as 17,000 years ago, but most likely closer to 10,000 years ago.
While dog remains have been excavated within most, if not all, culture areas across the Americas, they do not appear as frequently in archeological sites as some may think, given their millennia-long association with humans.
Archeological data and records of oral traditions about dogs do exist, but recent genetic research into the history of domestic dogs in North America seems to offer the most plentiful insights.
Many of us would look at dog breeds such as catahoulas or Mexican/Peruvian hairless and assume they pre-date Columbus’ arrival and perhaps are even indigenous.
But multiple genetic studies conducted in the last decade have shown this assumption to be incorrect.
Most recently, a zooarcheologist from the University of Durham in England took part in a large multi-disciplinary study and reviewed the complete genomes from seven ancient dogs from Siberia and North America, 71 ancient mDNA samples (which show the mother’s lineage only) and more than 5,000 modern dogs.
The results indicate dogs were brought to North America in four waves: from Asia 9,900 years ago, into the Arctic by Thule people 1,000 years ago, along with European colonizers 500 years ago and in the early 1900s, when Huskies were brought into Alaska from Siberia.
This large genetic study further indicates the latter two canine-immigration waves essentially wiped out the dogs from former migrations, and that the dogs living with us today are the descendants of dogs brought here within the last 500 years.
Results of other studies generally concur with this notion, although not completely (see The Carolina Dog).
A geneticist from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden examined the mDNA in 2,000 modern dogs and found there was a large-scale replacement of existing dogs in North America with the arrival of European colonizers, but there are still traces of ancient DNA in modern dogs.
The closest detectable lineage between modern and ancient dogs in the Americas is, unfortunately, a venereal tumour. This contagious cancer is rarely seen in dogs today, but is present and can be genetically traced to a mutation in a dog that lived approximately 8,000 years ago.
So, what happened to the dogs that were here when Europeans arrived 500 years ago that caused this widespread replacement?
It is well documented that human colonizers introduced diseases for which the native populations had no natural immunity.
Their dogs were no different, bringing distemper, rabies and other diseases across the seas.
First Nations’ oral histories and European journals also indicate Europeans looked down on the existing indigenous dogs, doing their best to inhibit cross-breeding or outright killing them.
Before and after the arrival of European colonizers, dogs had — and continue to have — many roles in the lives of their humans: hunting partners, draft/pack/sled animals, protectors, used for religious and ceremonial purposes, used for hair (like the use of wool from sheep) and, of course, for the deep and fulfilling companionship that most of us associate with our furry friends today.
Kim Christenson is a Kamloops archeologist. Interested in more? Go online to republic
ofarchaeology.ca. Dig It is KTW’s regularly published column on the history beneath our feet in the Kamloops region. A group of nine professional archeologists living and working in the area contribute columns to this page and online at kamloops thisweek.com.