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First Dog Breeders
Siberian hunter-gatherers may have bred canines for pulling sleds and hunting polar bears.

Last month I wrote about how studying dogs gives scientists a unique view into genetics because of the way they’ve been bred by humans. So who were the first people to breed dogs?

Recent evidence now points to the hunter-gatherers of a Siberian Island known as Zhokhov. Populated nine thousand years ago, these people lived in an unforgiving land, hunting polar bears and reindeer in year-round freezing temperatures.

An analysis of canine bones from Zhokhov suggests that these hunter-gatherers were among the first humans to breed dogs for a particular purpose—by thousands of years.

Vladimir Pitulko, an archeologist at the Russian Academy of Scientists, has been excavating Zhokhov since 1989. It’s well known that the island’s hunter-gatherers were using dogs to pull the sleds they used to pursue reindeer, but it wasn’t previously known if they were actually breeding dogs for this purpose.

Now Vladimir believes he has evidence that says that they were. His team of scientists studied the fossil bones of 11 individuals. Ten of the pups weighed between 35-50 pounds and may have resembled Siberian Huskies. The remaining dog weighted 63 pounds and seemed to be a wolf-dog hybrid, perhaps resembling an Alaskan Malamute.

According to Valdimir, good sled dogs typically weight between 44-55 pounds, big enough to pull sleds but won’t overheat like larger dogs. He believes the Zhokhov people bred the smaller dogs for sledding and the larger ones to hunt polar bears. “They were clearly shaping these animals to do something special,” he says. The size grouping is important.

About 7,000 years ago, dogs were used for herding in the Near East, but the wide range of weights in the ancient canines there argues against strictly controlled breeding. Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, believes that different kinds of dogs were mating with each other, producing random litters of puppies. The people there may have selected the most promising sled dogs from those litters but they probably weren’t specifically breeding them.

“It fills in a missing piece of the puzzle of early human-dog relationships, and even domestication itself,” says Angela.

The finding may also shed light on why dogs were domesticated in the first place. Though all scientists don’t agree on when this happened, recent research suggests it was at least 15,000 years ago. This happens to be around the time when Earth was beginning to warm, with large species like mammoths disappearing and smaller migrating animals like reindeer starting to dominate the landscape. Dogs could help hunt down this smaller prey and even provide a way for people to follow them.

“Before then, there was no real reason to have a dog,” says Vladimir. “We turned to them when we really needed them.”

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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