Dogs and Anthropology: Pre-Columbian Origins of Native American Breeds

I received my undergraduate degree in Anthropology; I miss the field, and I satisfy my inner anthro nerd by reading blogs and articles. I’m always keeping an eye out for anything anthro and animal related. I was in luck when I saw that Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog posted the abstract and a link to a recent paper (Go read it! It’s free!), which has identified several breeds of dogs in the Americas as pre-Columbian in origin. Then I caught the New York Times article, “DNA Backs Lore on Pre-Columbian Dogs,” which focuses on a free-ranging North American dog, the Carolina, and the breed’s relationship to the findings of the study.

Some interesting quotes from the paper, to summarize its research and findings:

The dog is now well established as the most ancient domestic animal and is unique as the only domesticate present in human societies on every continent in ancient times.  

Archaeological data and historic records have provided abundant evidence that dogs in pre-Columbian times were part of native cultures in the American continent long before the dawn of transoceanic travel in the fifteenth century [12]. Dogs were used for a large number of different purposes, for example, for hunting, sledging, freighting, protection and company, for religious and medicinal purposes and as a food resource. The earliest archaeological evidence for presence of dogs in the Americas has been dated to 10 000–8500 years ago, the dog thus being the sole domesticate in America during several thousand years [13, 14]. According to current hypotheses, the Americas started to be colonized by south Siberian peoples at least 15 000 years ago immediately after deglaciation of the Pacific coastal corridor [15]. Thus, pre-Columbian dogs must have been brought along by Paleo-Indians of Asian origin in their expansions throughout the American continent, although not necessarily in connection with the first waves of humans.

A small number of extant breeds in the American continent, for example, the Mexican Chihuahua, the xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless dog) and the Peruvian perro sín pelo (Peruvian hairless dog) have been claimed to descend from pre-Columbian populations.

Besides breed dogs, free-ranging dogs are abundantly found across the American continent. These dogs commonly have heterogeneous morphologies suggesting an origin predominantly from a mix of European breeds. However, in remote areas of southeastern USA (South Carolina and Georgia) there is a group of free-ranging dogs (called the Carolina dog) which morphologically resemble the Australian dingo and South Asian pariah dogs. Based on this resemblance to ‘primitive’ dogs, an origin from indigenous pre-Columbian dogs rather than from run-away breed dogs of European origin has been suggested [18].

The results show that out the breeds studied: Inuit, Eskimo and Greenland dogs, Alaskan Malamute, Chihuahua, xoloitzcuintli, and perro sín pelo del Peru, all have a pre-Columbian origin with the exception of the Alaskan Malamute, whose results were ambiguous. Additionally, the  results of the study contain the “first DNA-based evidence that the Carolina dog, a free-ranging population in the USA, may have an ancient Asian origin”:

 …some populations of free-ranging dogs seem to stem from indigenous American dogs. Thus, we here give genetic evidence that feral dogs from the USA, the so-called Carolina dog, may have an indigenous American origin and are not just ‘run-away’ dogs of European descent.

Why is this information important? As stated in the paper, “…mapping of both American humans and dogs may show whether the genetic diversity of domestic dogs mirrors that of humans and provide clues for understanding the colonization of the New World.”

Isn’t it so cool how animals – here, dogs – teach us?

Further Reading:

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