Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The first dogs of the Americas

Canis lupus familiaris evolved with Homo sapiens, not just by Homo sapiens. Genetic studies suggest dogs likely descend from gray wolf populations in the Middle East or southeastern Asia. Arguably, primitive dogs spread northward through icy Europe and across Asian steppes with nomadic humans, shaping humans along the way as we shaped them, ourselves and dogs a team adapting to ice age climate, together tackling big packages of protein and fat carried on four hooves or paws, calories and nutrition  necessary for survival of humans and dogs together in the cold. Our teamwork fueled our crossing the Bering Strait Land Bridge discovering the New World together at least 11,000 BCE. The role of dogs in the survival of humans is commonly underestimated. Could humans have populated North America without the help of dogs?

Nyla, wife of Nanook, with baby and puppy.

Inside Mandan earthlodge Karl Bodmer 1843. Bodmer placed nursing pups front and center, their importance to Native Americans.
Dogs extend the reach and scope of human senses and capabilities. Dogs are force multipliers (ecologically, niche multipliers*). Dogs' sense of smell found and followed game, camp raiders, and human enemies, warning and leading humans toward their quarry or to their defense. Dogs' sense of hearing extends the reach of human hearing and their barking alerts us to distant or approaching threats.  Dogs' legs extend the speed of human influence while dogs' agility extend the tactics of humans to distant quarry at bay, until the hunters catch up to collect their prize, tossing only scraps to the hard working dogs. Dogs' four legs carried truck, pulled sleds, and drug travoix, lightening loads for humans and speeding their way. Dogs prevented famine, too, occasionally they were eaten. Dogs were livestock, the only domesticated animals among pre-Columbian Native Americans in North America. Dogs were more than livestock, more than companions, dogs were partners then.

Far afield: A missionary reporting to Pierre de Charlevoix 1721 ca. on the tribulations encumbering his mission, from a distant outpost in the wilderness of New France, a winter hunting camp of Native Americans.
"...To all these inconveniences we must add one more, which though it may appear very small at first, is very considerable, and this is being persecuted by the dogs. The Indians have always a great number of these animals which follow them everywhere, and are remarkable for their fidelity; not fawning indeed as they are never caressed by their masters, but bold and good hunters: I have already said that they are trained up betimes for the different chases, for which they are intended: and so may add, that every Indian must have a considerable number of them, as many of them perish by teeth and horns of wild beasts, which they attack with courage that nothing is capable of shaking. Their masters are at very little pains in feeding them, so that they are obliged to live upon what they can catch, and as this goes no great way with them, it is no wonder they are very meager and thin of flesh; besides they have little hair, which renders them very sensible to the cold.
In order to defend themselves from it, if they cannot get near the fire, which it would be difficult for all of them to do, even were there nobody in the cabin, they lye down on the first person they meet, and one is often suddenly awakened in the night, almost choked with two or three dogs upon him. Were they a little more discreet in choosing their place, their company would not be extremely troublesome, and one might put up with them pretty well; but they lay themselves down where they can, and it is in vain to drive them away for they return an instant after. It is still worse in the daytime; as soon as any thing eatable appears, you cannot imagine what leaps they make to snatch it out of your hands. Imagine to yourself the case of a poor missionary crouching near the fire, to say his breviary or read some book, striving with smoke and exposed to the importunity of a dozen curs, who leap backwards and forwards over him, in order to snatch some morsel they may have seen. If he stands in need of a little rest, he is scarce able to find a corner where he can be free from this vexation. If anything is brought him to eat, the dogs have their snout in the dish before he tastes it, and often whilst he is defending his portion against those which attack him in front, another comes upon him from the rear, and either carries off half his allowance or jostles against him, so that the plate falls from his hands, and the sagamity is tumbled amongst the ashes."
Ontario, River St. Joseph, August 8, 1721. Pierre de Charlevoix, Sequel of Character of the Indians and their Manner of living. Letter XXIII. Journal of a Voyage to North America Volume II.

Regarding hunting with dogs...
"I forgot to inform your Grace, that the Indians always carry a great number of dogs with them in their huntings; these are the only domestic animals they breed, and that too only for hunting: they appear to be all of one species, with upright ears, and a long snout like that of a wolf; they are remarkable for their fidelity to their masters, who feed them however but very ill, and never make much of them. They are very early bred to that kind of hunting for which they are intended, and excellent hunters they make."
Three Rivers, Quebec, March 6, 1721. Pierre de Charlevoix, Sequel of the huntings of the Indians. Letter VI. Journal of a Voyage to North America Volume I.

Dogs have been with us at least 15,000 years (archaeology). Genetic lines of evidence suggest dogs may have originated as much as 100,000 years ago. Current efforts to obtain DNA from archaeological dog specimens may soon further resolve the origins of our canine companions.

Current information about origins and roles of dogs:
Dogs: Domestication and the Development of a Social Bond by Darcy D Morey. Cambridge University Press 2010.
Current information about efforts to uncover the genetic origins and the ancient profile of dogs:
Larson et al. 2012. PNAS vol. 109 No. 23. Larson et al. pdf
*We contend that human hunter-gatherer evolution, organic and cultural, periodically was catapulted by a small number of niche multipliers: tool use, tool manufacture and use, language development (origins of coordinated planning--teamwork), natural fire use, anthropogenic fire ignition and use--transport, appropriation of animal skins and shelter constructions, fiber technologies, threads & textiles, cords & ropes, stitching & weaving, invention of knives--spears, association with Canis lupus, domestication of or co-evolution with Canis lupus, invention--manufacture of waterborne vessels, invention--manufacture of atlatl technology, invention--manufacture of bow and arrow technology, and so on... Each niche multiplier powered greater ecological expansion and broader ecological impacts, human population growth and increased geographic expansion.

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