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Canid jaw bones with teeth that were found at Jaguar Cave in Idaho. Dog jaws are on the right. Coyote jaws are on the left.

One of the most interesting discoveries of remains of Pre-Columbian domestic dogs in North America is at Jaguar Cave in Idaho’s Beaverhead Mountains.  The site is rather famous in that it has pictographs and hearths– definite signs of human habitation– and various bones from a wide variety of North American fauna, including the bones of the American lion (Panthera leo atrox).

It also has bones of dogs, wolves, and coyotes. Among those bones  are canid jaw bones— 43 of which have been idenitified as domestic dogs, 28 as coyote, and 4 as wolf.

These bones were initially assumed to be older than 9,000 years old, because it was believed to have been naturally sealed around that time. Further, the oldest hearth in the cave was carbon-dated to over 11,000 to 12,000 years of age.

It was initially assume that the dog remains in the cave were that old, and what was most interesting about the bone is they represented two distinct breeds. One of these was quite large– Labrador retriever-sized– and the other was smaller– around the size of a beagle.

If these bones were that old, it would strongly suggest that Native Americans entered North America with both large and small dogs. Indeed, they may have very well have had both large and small dogs when they came into the continent.

But the dogs of Jaguar Cave are not evidence for them.

When the jaw bones were directly dated, they were found to be only 1,000 to 3,000 years old.

Not ancient idigenous North American dogs.

But definitely Pre-Columbian.

However, the finding of these Labrador-sized Pre-Columbian Native American dogs that were indigenous to what is now Idaho put to rest the commonly held assertion that Native American dogs were always coyote-sized or smaller.  This is the assertion posited on my least favorite site on Native American dogs, you know, Kim La Flamme’s site, which, among other things, claims that all domestic dogs derive from coyotes– and claims that all the DNA evidence we’ve now compiled on dogs proves it!

There is no mention of the Jaguar Cave dogs on this site– because they are in direct contradiction to the assertion that Native American dogs were all mid-sized or smaller.

Some of the coyote or wolf remains at Jaguar Cave may be those of domestic dogs.  In hunter-gatherer societies, there was often only a paltry difference between a wolf and a dog, and in the early days of domestication, one would not be able to tell the difference between wolves or dogs– which is one reason why it’s been so hard to find good fossil evidence of early dog domestication. There is always an assumption that dogs will have shorter jaws and domed heads, but the early domestic dogs would not have these features– and neither would any dogs that happened to cross with wild wolves in those days.  These coyotes could have been semi or fully domesticated, as could have been the case with the Hare Indian dog. Or they could have been domestic dogs with a coyote phenotype.

The notion that the only Native American dogs that ever existested are those that were like coyotes is one of the most bizarre assertions I’ve yet encountered.

It’s also unusually racist.

Native Americans were not ignorant savages. They were not noble savages either.

They were highly skilled people who were able to master this continent, its mercurial climate, and its wildlife.

They were also skilled dog breeders, who produced all sorts of different dogs that ranged from diminuative techichis and Tahltan bear dogs to large moose-hunting dogs that belonged to the Mi’kmaq of the Maritimes. There were the wool dogs of the Salish that produced unusually thick wool and were kept on islands and fenced in caves to keep their bloodlines pure.

These people were more than capable of breeding dogs to fit their purposes.

The reason why someone would make the claim that all Native American dogs were of a very narrow phenotype is two-fold.  First of all, that particular site offers coyote-like domestic dogs for sale. If one says that all the dogs of the Native Americans were of that type, then one would be better able to market these coyote-type dogs. Further, the larger Native American dogs would have been the first ones killed off following European conquest.  The big dogs would have definitely been a threat to livestock. These big dogs also could have melded back into the wolf population more easily, and they also could have been absorbed into massive influx of Newfoundlands and other large working breeds that were swarming across the continent.

That would mean that the only dogs that likely would have survived near reservations would have been smaller but no so small that they would have been killed by larger dogs or wolves. Native peoples truly suffered as a result of colonization. Their whole existence was distrupted, and they couldn’t invest so much of their energy into maintaining different breeds or types.

Not a single dog in existence today is predominantly Native American in ancestry. The closest one can get to dogs that have a lot of that ancestry are the Carolina dog, which remained isolated on an island in the Savannah River between South Carolina and Georgia but probably was already heavily contaminated with Western dog blood by the time it got isolated, and the different sled dogs of the arctic, including the Alaskan malmute. These arctic dogs tend to belong to the various people called Inuit and Eskimo, which are not Native American in that they derive from the earliest Siberian colonizers of the Americas. They come from a later wave of migration.

The Labrador-sized dog of Jaguar Cave shows that should not believe everything that is written on the internet. You have to be willing to look at every claim a objectively. Some things are just wrong, but they sound so good that you want to believe it.

Don’t believe. Find out if it’s true.

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