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Precolumbian Tribal Dogs In The Americas

By: Stephanie Little Wolf

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The dog who first entered North America with paleoindians was a well established inhabitant along with his human counterpart as early as fourteen thousand years ago. DNA studies on the genetic structure of paleoamerican dogs show that this was a fully domesticated animal at the time of entry into the North American continant, suggesting that the domestication of dogs occurred at an earlier time than has been previously suggested, (the archaeological record also suggests the origin of domestication of dogs around fourteen thousand years ago)- about the same time that humans walked over from Eurasia to the new world. This would indicate that the dog was actually domesticated at an earlier time than that.

The DNA Factor

Indeed, the Mtdna (mitochondrial) studies strongly support the hypothesis that paleoamerican and Eurasian domestic dogs share a common origin, both evolving from the Eurasian gray Wolf. No evidence of a separate domestication of dogs from North American Grey Wolves was discovered. Although the haplotypes found in paleoamerican dogs were closely related to Eurasian dogs, some of them formed a unique clade within the main genetic group, (clad 1), which is found only in paleoamerican dogs. This indicates that dogs were present and isolated in the new world for a considerable amount of time. This long period of isolation led to the appearance of a group of genetic sequences (haplotypes) that are similar but very easily distinguishable from dogs from other parts of the world, or from any modern dog population in America today. Indeed, no surveyed modern population of dogs in the united states carries these unique genetic markers in their DNA. American Indian Dogs were extinct early on by inbreeding and replacing by European dogs. Only the Eskimo dog has survived. Dna evidence links the Eskimo Dog with the Australian Dingo, the New Guinea Singing dog, and the Shiba Inu. The Mexican Hairless or Xoloitzcuintle was present in the Americas long before Europeans arrived, but the genetic lineage shows extreme mixing with European dogs and may not genetically resemble its precolumbian ancestors anymore, although reduced dentition and hairlessness are extremely dominant traits, so the dogs strongly resemble their forbears in appearance.

Dogs, Wolves, and Coyotes

At the time of European contact, American Indians were groups of diverse and widely dispersed nations. It is common yet inaccurate these days for them to be discussed as one single population, and their dogs do not escape this inaccuracy. In fact, there were many different types of Indian dogs and they were used for a variety of reasons that were as diverse and unique as the people they inhabited the land with. It is also common for modern researchers to site early explorers from the late 1600's to the late 1800's and their anecdotal interpretations of Indian dogs as being almost impossible to distinguish from the wolf. This is also a common mistake and misinterpretation today. Countless times I have heard children, and adults refer to my Alaskan Village dogs as wolves. In fact, Eskimo dogs, huskies and other sled dogs may have fur and vocalizations that resemble their wolf ancestors, but that is about it. Dogs have a shorter stockier build, wider chests and shorter faces and muzzles, with short steep "stops" or angle from forehead to the bridge of the nose. In all, many dogs filled rolls within Indian cultures. Some tribes had rather loose associations with their dogs, some were extremely attached and involved with dogs as pets and or using them for various tasks. Dogs probably tracked game, and packed meat after a hunt. Dogs were eaten by some groups as a food source and some were only consumed ceremonially. Dogs were the playmates of young children and companions to the elders.

Four distinct types of tribal dog are presented here, although many more existed at one time. I encourage one to carefully review the list of resources presented at the end of this article.

Great Plains Dogs

Dogs were an intregal and important aspect of the tribes they were a part of. It is logical to discuss "dog culture" as the time period before the acquisition of the horse, and the time after this acquisition as "horse culture" by nations of the great plains. Some dogs were used for hauling and packing, pulling the famous travious across the plains. They packed meat or belongings, children and the elderly. They were pets, a food source, and possible trackers of game. They were numerous, partly fended for themselves, and bred freely with little input or selectiveness from tribal people. Selective breeding most likely did not occur among plains tribes, the only intervention in this respect was the culling of small or sickly pups or those that were snappish or surly with small children. Culling was also practiced to reduce the load of pups on the mother so she retained her health during the nursing period, and to select for large heavily boned individuals. Dogs served the important function of barking to alarm the tribe of the approach of enemies or visitors. Large and medium sized dogs coexisted and are sometimes vicariously referred to as Plains Indian Dogs and Sioux Dogs. These dogs according to some descriptions were either Dingo tawny colored and short or smooth coated, or grayish and somewhat longer coated. Many other color combinations existed, however, such as white, black, spotted and mottled. In reading many of the descriptions, what comes across is an animal somewhat like a dingo and somewhat like a husky. Tails were either short, broom or half tails, or sickle shaped with the typical curve of many a pariah dog throughout the world today. Photographs that exist of plains Indians and dogs show extremely mixed individuals, in recreated scenes that tried to depict a lifestyle well after cultural demise. The dogs bear the mark of European breeds, in color, coat texture, many possessing the typical heavier flopped over ears.

The Tahl Tan Bear Dog

This little bear dog was from 12 to 18 inches tall and weighed from 10- to 18lbs. Amazingly, It survived into the late 1960's or early 70's. This dog of the Tlingits, Tahltans, Kaska, and Sekani was used for hunting bears in British Columbia, Canada. The hunters carried the dog inside a pouch until bear tracks were discovered, wear upon the dogs tracked the bear. These small dogs could run on top of crusty snow and bark and worry the bear until hunters arrived. These little dogs were black with white markings, or white with black markings, not much bigger that today's Schipperke. On examining a photograph from Atlin, B.C., of a bear dog, I noticed its resemblance to the New Guinea Singing Dog, an extremely rare dingo type dog from Papua New Guinea. In another photograph, the dog resembled a Papillon.

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