Posts Tagged ‘muskox’

This image comes from Musk-ox, Bison, Sheep and Goat (1904) by Caspar Whitney, George Bird Grinnell, and Owen Wister. It shows how dogs were used to bay up muskoxen, allowing the hunter to kill them with shots from a rifle or the hurling of a spear or harpoon. The text explains how dogs were used:

Among the Indians that live south and west of the Barren Grounds (no Indian lives in the Barren Grounds), the method of hunting the musk-ox is practically the same, and, as I have shown in the early part of this paper, it is because the Indians lack high hunting skill and because their dogs are neither trained nor courageous that bigger kills are not made. White hunters and trained dogs could practically wipe out every herd of musk-oxen they encountered; for while it is true that musk-oxen give you a long run once you have sighted them, yet when you get up to them, when the dogs have brought them to bay, it is almost like shooting cattle in a corral. There is always a long run. I think I never had less than three miles, and in the first hunt which I have described, I must have run nine or ten. But, as I say, when you get up to them it is easy, for they will stand to the dogs so long as the dogs bay them. And all this running would be unnecessary if the Indians exercised more hunting skill and judgment.

Although the prairie form of the country is not altogether the best for stalking, yet one could stalk comparatively near a herd before turning the dogs loose. The Indians never do this, and, in addition, the dogs set up a yelping and a howling the moment they catch sight of the quarry. This, of course, starts off the musk-oxen, which invariably choose the roughest part of the country, no doubt feeling, and rightly, too, that their pursuers will have the more difficult time following. Indian dogs are not always to be relied upon, for they have a disposition to hunt in a group, and your entire bunch of dogs is apt to stop and hold only three or four stragglers of the herd while the remainder of the musk-oxen escape. Sometimes when they stop practically the entire herd, the dogs are very likely, before you come up to them, to shift, leaving their original position and gradually drawing together; perhaps, the whole pack of dogs finally holding only half a dozen, while the rest of the musk-oxen have run on. Musk-oxen, when stopped, invariably form a circle with their sterns in and their heads out; it matters not whether the herd is thirty or half a dozen, their action is the same. If there are only two, they stand stern to stern, facing out. I have seen a single musk-ox back up against a rock. Apparently they feel safe only when they get their sterns up against something.

Hunting musk-oxen on the Arctic Coast or the Arctic islands after the manner of the polar expeditions, is a much simpler proposition. There the hunters are always comparatively near their base of supplies, and, from all accounts, the musk-oxen are more numerous than they are in the interior. According to Frederick Schwatka, the Innuits hunt musk-oxen with great skill. They hitch their dogs to the sledge differently from the method of the Indians to the south. The southern Indians hitch their four dogs in tandem between two common traces, one on each side; while each Eskimo dog has his own single trace, which is hitched independently to the sledge. When the Innuits sight the musk-oxen, each hunter takes the dogs of his sledge, and holding their traces in his hand, starts after the game. The wisdom of this method is twofold: in the first place it immeasurably aids the running hunter, for the four or five straining dogs practically pull him along; indeed, Schwatka says that when these Innuits come to a hill they squat and slide down, throwing themselves at full length upon the snow of the ascending bank, up which the excited dogs drag them without any effort on the part of the hunter. I should like to add here that if such a plan were pursued in the Barren Grounds over the rocky ridges, the remains of the hunter would not be interested in musk-ox hunting by the time the top of a ridge was reached. Seriously, the chief value of hunting in this style is that the hunter controls his four to six dogs, the usual number of the Eskimo sledge. When they have caught up with the musk-ox herd, he then looses them and he is there to begin action. The Eskimo dogs are very superior in breed to those used by the Indians farther south, and are trained as well to run mute (pg.56-61).

The dogs in the image are “Eskimo dogs,” which  we more correctly call “Inuit dogs” or “qimmiq” in Canada.  However, these particular dogs are from Cape Morris Jesup, which is the northernmost point in Greenland. Robert E. Peary documented these dogs on his 1900 expedition, which first documented this particular cape.  The dogs were baying the muskoxen within a quarter mile of the northenmost terminus of the cape, which he thought was the most northern point of land in the world. Coffee Club Island, which lies just 23 miles east of Cape Morris Jesup is actually the land that holds this distinction– but only by only a little less than half a mile. The dogs on Greenland are usually referred to as Greenland dogs today, but they are very similar to the dogs in the Canadian arctic, which should be thought of as a landrace.

This image isn’t the best, but Peary did document dogs baying and “rounding up” muskoxen in Canada’s Northwest Territories in The North Pole: Its Discovery in 1909.

His description of the hunting the muskoxen with dogs goes as follows:

When we saw the significant black dots in the distance, we headed for them. There were five close together, and another a little way off. When we got within less than a mile, two of the dogs were loosed. They were wild with excitement, for they also had seen the black dots and knew what they meant; and as soon as the traces were unfastened they were off—straight as the flight of a homing bee.

We followed, at our leisure, knowing that when we arrived the herd would be rounded up, ready for our rifles. A single musk-ox, when he sees the dogs, will make for the nearest cliff and get his back against it; but a herd of them will round up in the middle of a plain with tails together and heads toward the enemy. Then the bull leader of the herd will take his place outside the round-up, and charge the dogs. When the leader is shot, another takes his place, and so on.

A few minutes later I stood again, as I had stood on previous expeditions, with that bunch of shaggy black forms, gleaming eyes and pointed horns before me—only this time it did not mean life or death.

Yet, as I raised my rifle, again I felt clutching at my heart that terrible sensation of life hanging on the accuracy of my aim; again in my bones I felt that gnawing hunger of the past; that aching lust for red, warm, dripping meat—the feeling that the wolf has when he pulls down his quarry. He who has ever been really hungry, either in the Arctic or elsewhere, will understand this feeling. Sometimes the memory of it rushes over me in unexpected places. I have felt it after a hearty dinner, in the streets of a great city, when a lean-faced beggar has held out his hand for alms.

I pulled the trigger, and the bull leader of the herd fell on his haunches. The bullet had found the vulnerable spot under the fore shoulder, where one should always shoot a musk-ox. To aim at the head is a waste of ammunition.

As the bull went down, out from the herd came a cow, and a second shot accounted for her. The others, a second cow and two yearlings, were the work of a few moments; then I left Ooblooyah and Koolatoonah to skin and cut them up, while Egingwah and I started for the single animal, a couple of miles away.

As the dogs approached this fellow, he launched up the hill and disappeared over a nearby crest. The light surface snow along the path he had taken was brushed away by the long, matted hair of his sides and belly, which hung down to the ground.

The dogs had disappeared after the musk-ox, but Egingwah and myself were guided by their wild barking. Our quarry had taken refuge among the huge rocks in the bottom of a stream-bed, where his rear and both sides were protected, and there he stood at bay with the yelping dogs before him.

One shot was enough; and leaving Egingwah to skin and cut up the animal, I started to walk back to the other two men, as it had been decided to camp at the place where they were cutting up the five musk-oxen. But as I emerged from the mouth of the cañon, I saw up the valley still another of the big, black shaggy forms. Quickly I retraced my steps, and gathering in two of the dogs, secured this fellow as easily as the others.

This last specimen was, however, of peculiar interest, as the white hair of the legs, just above the hoofs, was dashed with a bright red—a marking which I had never before seen in any of these arctic animals.

Taking the dogs with me and leaving the musk-ox, I went on to the place selected for a camp. Ooblooyah and Koolatoonah were just finishing cutting up the fifth musk-ox, and were immediately sent off with a sledge and team of dogs, to help Egingwah with the two big bulls.

When they were gone, I set up the tent myself and began to prepare the tea for our supper. As soon as the voices of the Eskimos were audible in the distance, I put on the musk-ox steaks to broil and in a few minutes we were enjoying the reward of our labor. Surely this was living on the fat of the land indeed, deer steak the second night, bear steak last night, to-night the luscious meat of the musk-ox!(pg. 151-154).

The notion that dogs and likely the early habituated wolves that became dogs were not used in hunting is an idea that has always perplexed me. I have shown with this post and the one on dingoes hunting tree kangaroos in Queensland that hunter-gatherers were more than willing to use dogs to get the meat they needed for sustenance. In neither case were these dogs improved European breeds. In Queensland, they were dingoes that were born in the wild, and in the case of these North American arctic spitz dogs, they occasionally had recent wolf ancestry– a fact that has largely been denied by people like Raymond Coppinger but has always been pointed out in the oral history of the people of the region and those who documented them. It is true that when modern wolves that have been bred in captivity are used as sled dogs, they often fail miserably, because they were too emotionally reactive with each other to be trusted on a sled line. That’s probably because they all derive from heavily persecuted populations of wolves. The original wolves in the high arctic were not persecuted at all, and allowing the dogs to mate with these wolves would have been something that would have happened, though probably not on a large scale.

The people who promote this hypothesis that hunting-gathering man had no use for hunting dogs often have not looked at any of the history or ethnography on actual hunter-gatherers.

It seems to me weird that hunting with dogs would exist with hunter-gatherers in both Queensland and the North American arctic, and because we know that the dog is the product of paleolithic man, not neolithic or early agricultural man, it seems to me that using dogs or early socialized wolves as hunting animals would have been their primary purpose. Paleolithic man in Eurasia was hunting prey very similar to the muskox– and often quite a bit larger. Using the dogs or tamed wolves to bay up a large prey species like this would have made perfect sense.

The fact that modern wolves are poor candidates for hunting companions reflects two aspects that have never been fully examined in the literature. One of these that centuries of persecution– even the most remote parts of the arctic– have fundamentally changed what wolves are. Wolves are pretty hard for the layperson to socialize, but it seems to me that if wolves were tamed tens of thousands of years ago, they had to have been much easier to tame than they are now.

It also leaves out something else that isn’t widely discussed but is an important topic in Mark Derr’s upcoming book, How the Dog Became the Dog, which will be out next month. Humans assume that wolves must be managed using all these harsh compulsory methods, because we assume that because wolves are often quite aggressive with each other in captivity that we must manage them this way.  I saw a wolf expert of some note on a nature program a few months ago who was analyzing that the reason why a woman was killed by her captive wolf and wolf hybrids was because she wasn’t biting them and standing over them to show them who is boss. Never mind that this woman kept them in a very small kennel run and had more than ten individuals in this enclosure, which would have put all sorts of stresses on the animals.

Dog trainers have largely assumed that the best way to train dogs is using a lot of force and intimidation, especially with “primitive” breeds.  The early wolf behavior studies stated that their societies were packs controlled by rigid hierarchies, which were led by an alpha male, who ruled with an iron fist. When these same trainers began to train wolves, they discovered that wolves usually responded poorly to these methods, and it was decided that wolves were impossible to train. It has only been recently when more positive reinforcement– based methods, which have started to have a very strong following among dog trainers, have been applied to wolves, that it was discovered that wolves were perfectly trainable, though not exactly like super-biddable Western dog breeds.

To train a wolf, one would have had to have gained its trust and respect. For a wolf to trust a human, a human would have had to have been gentle with it.  Any habituated wolves that would have shown aggression towards people would have been let go or killed, but those that were curious and interested in learning form people, like Adolph Murie’s Wags, would have been the ideal animals to train for the hunt.

Derr also points out that we moderns tend to think of dogs and wolves as clearly defined entities, but for much of our history, the line between dog and wolf has always been fuzzy.  Wolves that became dogs bred in the camps or very near them, but as was often the case, they often dispersed into the wild wolf population. Through capturing cubs and habituating adult wolves that were dispersing from their natal packs, new wild blood would also be brought in, and through wild wolves engaging in the Casanova strategy for reproduction, even more wild blood would be brought in.

Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in North America’s Great Plains, wolves and dogs were exchanging genes in this fashion.  Alexander Henry, a fur trader with the Northwest Company who was working along the Red River of the North in what is now North Dakota around the year 1800, would describe how female wolves would do anything to mate with his dogs:

We had a bitch in heat; she was very troublesome, and the dogs made a terrible noise on her account day and night. I drove them all to the plains; a band of wolves got scent of the bitch, and a furious battle ensued, in which one of our dogs was torn to pieces. This often happens at this season, when the wolves are copulating and our dogs get among them. The female wolves prefer our dogs to their own species, and daily come near the fort to entice the dogs. They often succeed, and if the dogs ever return, they are in a miserable condition, lean and covered with sores. Some of my men have amused themselves by watching their motions in the act of copulating; rushing upon them with an ax or club, when the dog, apprehending no danger, would remain quiet, and the wolf, unable to run off, could be dispatched.

The idea that dog and wolf have always had such clear distinction really taints our understanding of their evolutionary history.

The notion that we can make inferences about how man related to wolves using the way modern man relates to modern wolves is also in error. Evolution and selection pressures on wolves did not end when dogs came onto the scene. Man selected dogs to be even more cooperative and helpful, while Eurasian man put selection pressures on the wolf population to be more reactive and fearful. He also developed ways of relating to canines that might make it more difficult for man ever to domesticate wolves again. He also created the urban environment, which might be difficult for a wolf to adapt to, and domesticated other species, which might be hard for a wolf to ignore. Dogs have adapted to both of these developments.

But in areas where neither of these things exist, the difference between a dog and a dingo and a wolf and a dog would remain nebulous. That was the case with the Greenland dogs and with the hunting dingoes, and it was the case with hunter-gatherer man.

We are somewhat imprisoned by our prejudices and through our own paradigms with which our academics operate.

When we look at things from a more broadly-based, interdisciplinary perspective, certain truths become more clear.

Read Full Post »

Remarkable footage. A little bumpy but still amazing.




Read Full Post »

I remember watching this documentary on PBS a long time ago:


Big game hunting wolves from the northern subspecies are perfectly adapted to killing large ungulates.

No pair of domestic dogs could kill even a winter weakened muskox.

But through the wonders of evolution, these Arctic wolves can hunt muskoxen and caribou. Those that live a bit to the south, regularly grapple with moose.

Dogs are much more easily compared to the more generalist southern subspecies of wolf, like pallipes, arabs, and whatever the Indian population of pallipes is.

Read Full Post »


Ovibos= muskox. I prefer to use the term Ovibos, which is derived from the s names of the genera for both sheep (Ovis) and cattle (Bos).

They are actually far more closely related to sheep and goats than they are to cattle. At one point, it was believed that the muskox’s closest relative was the Himalayan takin, but recent analysis of their mitochondrial DNA has found that the takin are more closely related to sheep than Ovibos.

In The Northward Course of Empire, Vilhjalmur Stefansson (who was a Canadian ethnologist of Icelandic descent) describes the muskoxen as a wonderful animal that should be domesticated to produce both meat and wool for the future Arctic civilization.

There were two domestication centers for this species that were set up. One was at Fort Chimo, Quebec, and the other at Unalakleet, Alaska. The Quebec population was released into the wild, where it is now a free roaming and self-sustaining population. The one in Alaska has been kept in captivity for many generations, and it has since been moved to Palmer. A native industry has developed around selling and processing the  wool, which is called qiviut.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: