DENVER—Dogs first arrived in the Americas around 16,000 years ago, likely on the heels of Ice Age hunters crossing an ancient land bridge from Siberia. These native dogs stayed on the continent for thousands of years as furry friends and hunting companions – until suddenly they disappeared, genetically replaced by European breeds. Now, a pair of jawbones excavated from the land beneath Virginia’s colonial settlement of Jamestown may shed light on the disappearance of these dogs and the roles they may have played in the lives of Native Americans and European settlers.
It’s a “pretty cool” study that opens a window into a time when little is known about the continent’s first dogs, says Courtney Hofman, an anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, who has no did not participate in the research. “A lot of work has focused on much older native dogs, but less has been done on them lately.”
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas in the 15th century, they brought large dogs of war with them. Later European settlers brought working dogs such as Bloodhounds and Greyhounds, as well as other hunting dogs. Gradually, these European bloodlines almost completely replaced the native dogs of the Americas. Today, only a few arctic breeds, such as Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes, are thought to retain a genetic link to their ancient past.
How and when this dramatic genetic change occurred remains unknown. So Ariane Thomas, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Iowa, turned to the remains of dogs discovered in Jamestown between 2007 and 2010. Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, founded largely by explorers with little agricultural experience.
Thomas managed to extract mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), inherited from the maternal line, from two canine jawbones, one found under an old bakery and the other inside a well that is believed to have belonged to the colonial governor John Smith. Both structures date from the early 1600s.
Thomas compared the mtDNA of dogs with that of modern and ancient dogs around the world. The dam line of Jamestown dogs had no connection to European breeds, his team reported here last week at the annual meeting of the American Association of Biological Anthropologists. Instead, the animals were more closely related to other ancient dogs from Illinois and Ohio, and were distantly related to several ancient arctic dogs, including the oldest known American dog, found in Alaska. and about 10,000 years old.
Curiously, the dogs are not closely related to canines dated to around 1000-1400 CE found in another Virginia colonial village known as Weyanoke, just 50 kilometers away. “There may be a lot more diversity than we initially thought,” says Thomas. This suggests that European dogs may have slowly replaced the natives, she says.
All of the dog skull fragments recovered from Jamestown show narrow, shallow cutmarks suggesting they were butchered, she said. The remains were also found among food scraps such as mussel shells and fish bones. The jawbone recovered from Smith’s Well dates from a period known as the Starving Time, covering the winter between 1609 and 1610 in which the settlers at Jamestown nearly perished. “They ran out of supplies,” Thomas says, and “resorted to eating whatever was around.”
Some of the other dog bones were found in layers from at least 10 years later, suggesting eating dogs was not uncommon when times got tough.
How exactly these native dogs came to Jamestown remains a mystery, she said. The settlers wanted to maintain the prized bloodlines of European hunting dogs, so it’s unlikely they knowingly allowed native dogs to breed with their own, Thomas notes. Later, a law passed in 1629 expressly forbade the trade of European dogs with indigenous peoples.
Jamestown dogs may also have had native owners. Thousands of mussel shell beads in various stages of construction found at the site suggest that some indigenous people – likely the local Powhatan – may have lived and worked at the settlement. If so, they may have brought their canine companions with them.
Next, Thomas hopes to sequence the nuclear DNA of the Jamestown dogs, which will reveal whether they were fully native or European-indigenous dog hybrids.
The stories of these dogs shed light on the “shared histories” of Indigenous peoples and colonial Europeans, says Raquel Fleskes, a genetic anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. “It is part of the history of Europeans learning from indigenous societies, and [the dogs’ story] could shed light on their relationships and interactions.