The first American dogs were different, and arrived a very long time ago

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New genetic research using buried dogs found at two sites in Illinois suggests that the first American dogs came over from Siberia over 16,000 years ago, and were genetically distinct from European dogs.

In the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists excavated two sites in western Illinois, where ancient hunter-gatherers collected shellfish from a nearby river and stalked deer in surrounding forests. These people also appear to have buried their dogs: One was found at a site known as Stilwell II, and four at a site called Koster, curled up in individual gravelike pits.

Radiocarbon analysis of the bones reveals that they are around 10,000 years old, making these canines the oldest dogs known in the Americas, researchers report on the bioRxiv server. It also makes these the oldest solo dog burials anywhere in the world. The Stilwell II dog was about the size of an English setter, whereas the Koster dogs were smaller and slenderer, says the study’s lead author, Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom. “It wouldn’t be surprising if they were all used as hunting dogs.” But where did they come from in the first place?

A second study, published today in Science, may have the answer. A large, international team of researchers sequenced DNA from the mitochondria, or cellular power plants, of 71 North American and Siberian dog bones—including from one of the Koster dogs—dated from about 10,000 to 1000 years ago. When they compared this material, which is passed down only by the mother, to that of 145 modern and ancient dogs, they discovered that the ancient American dogs have a genetic signature not found in any other canines.

There is much uncertainty still about the dates, but not about the genetics. The dogs were larger, resembles wolves, and even howled instead of barked. They were wiped out after the arrival of the Europeans in American, probably because of disease.



  • wayne

    I’m way-fuzzy on “dogs,” but, makes perfect sense to me.

    Pivoting to Cats;
    We know (wild) cats came over the Siberian land-bridge into North & South America, roughly 10 million years ago. Fast forward to the last ice-age and North America in particular; populations of large predator type animals in general were greatly reduced, squeezed, and differentiated, including wild cats. Then they rebound as the ice recedes.
    Concurrently, wild cats are being domesticated in the middle east in pre-history, and rapidly diffuse out along with human settlement.
    (I would defer to Mr. Z. on this–) If I recall correctly– the Mayflower carried multiple cat’s and dog’s to North America.
    You start getting imported, domesticated cats & dogs, along with the indigenous variations.

    (Cats were prized in Colonial America, until that whole witchcraft thing’ got outa control.)

  • Tom Billings

    Interesting article!

    It also makes some sense of the remark made by the racist scientist “Le Comte Buffon” in the 18th century that animals in the New World(and by implication everything else) were degenerates, when he noted that “even the dogs do not bark”. He just didn’t know that they were not from the same gene pool, and never had barked. He might have noticed that like wolves, they probably bark as puppies, and lose that habit as adults. That would have required more examination than the superficial ones Buffon was known for.

  • wodun

    We must clone them.

    the data suggest that the first dogs may have come to the Americas from Siberia thousands of years after the first people,

    This is an interesting quote because the dogs didn’t come by themselves and it illustrates waves of migration and the migration paths could have been very different. Considering the climate of 10,000 years ago and some of the other sites where humans were first documented as living, it creates a great migration mystery.

    If people didn’t bring dogs over with them right away, it could be because they didn’t know how useful they would be. Or it could simply be that dogs didn’t exist yet. When this alliance did form in the Americas, it likely mirrored one taking place all over the world

    Except that they state that the subject dog’s DNA most closely related to those from Siberia. This points to the likelihood that they did come with people and were already dogs. They will probably find remains from earlier dogs to document this. But human populations with/without dogs could point to different migration paths like sea/land.

    Precontact dogs might have died out because they fell out of favor with Native Americans or because breeding wasn’t able to be maintained. There are any number of examples of lines going extinct or almost extinct because people the line fell out of favor for whatever reason. For example, the Norwegian Lundehund.

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