Remains of ancient dogs that didn’t bark were found at Jamestown


They were dogs that howled but didn’t bark. They resembled foxes, or wolves. And they had been the companions of Native Americans for thousands of years, after their ancestors arrived with early migrants from Asia.

Now, DNA that appears to be from descendants of these long-vanished canines has turned up at the Jamestown colonial site in Virginia, where starving settlers may have eaten them, experts at Jamestown and the University of Iowa said this month.

It is the first proof that Indigenous dogs were at Jamestown, and is a link to the bones of more than 100 that were found at a Native American site nearby in the 1970s and ’80s.

“It is really exciting,” said Leah Stricker, curator at Preservation Virginia’s Jamestown Rediscovery project.

“Many of the discoveries … made on this site support the historical record, but in the case of artifacts like these dog bones, the archaeological material is rewriting history,” she said in an email.

It’s “also exciting … that the DNA survives in some of these bones,” which are 400 years old, she said. “This opens up new and expanded avenues of research.”

Dogs are believed to have come to North America with early migrants from Northeast Asia about 14,000 years ago, experts say.

“The first people to enter the Americas likely did so with their dogs,” Angela Perri, an archaeologist at Texas A&M University, wrote with colleagues last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Where people went, dogs went.”

They were used for hunting, for warmth, for protection, as draft animals and perhaps as companions in the afterlife. The extinct Salish Wool hound of the Pacific Northwest was bred for its white fur, which was cut and woven for blankets.

In some instances, native dogs were eaten. The Northern Iroquois had a feast of the dogs dedicated to their war god in which dog meat was ritually eaten, the late historian Jeffrey P. Blick has written. Other groups practiced dog sacrifice.

Native dogs were soon replaced by European dogs, and almost no genetic trace of the Indigenous animals remains in today’s dogs, Perri said in an interview.

In 1607, Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States. It is located on the James River in southeastern Virginia, 160 miles south of Washington.

Little is known for certain about local Indigenous dogs, aside from fleeting references in historic accounts.

“What comes down to us today regarding the Native American domestic dog in Virginia are bits and pieces that must be stitched together” from sources from 1585 to 1705, Blick wrote in a paper in 2000.

The British observer William Strachey, for example, reported in 1612: “The doggs of the Country are like their woulves, and cannot barke but howle.” Others described native dogs as looking like foxes, “blacke and sharp nosed.”

The 19th-century artist and adventurer George Catlin later wrote: “The dog, amongst all Indian tribes, is more esteemed and more valued than amongst any part of the civilized world. … The Indian … keeps him closer company, and draws him near to his heart.”

Few images of local native dogs survive. One animal appears in the background of a painting of an Indian village in what is now northeastern North Carolina by the English artist John White, dating to about 1585.

The painting shows a dog about the size of a fox, with short hair, a long nose and a tail that curls up.

The Jamestown discovery came by accident, said Ariane Thomas, a PhD candidate in anthropology who specializes in anthropological genetics and ancient DNA at the University of Iowa.

She had been researching colonial dogs of European origin to see when they replaced Indigenous dogs. She also wanted to see if there was a link between ancient European and modern dogs.

“Is a bloodhound from 1625 the genetic ancestor of today’s bloodhounds in North America?” she said.

But data on early European dogs is also scarce.

She said she learned that Jamestown Rediscovery had colonial dog bone fragments in its large artifact collection. She and associate professor of anthropology Matthew E. Hill Jr. visited Jamestown in July.

They focused on teeth from seven dogs, and drilled into them to see if they could collect material that would yield DNA. No viable DNA existed in four of the dogs, Stricker, of Jamestown, said.

But DNA was acquired from the other three, and analysis showed they were likely Indigenous rather than European.

In addition, the bones from all three showed cut marks indicating that they had been butchered and eaten by colonists, said Michael Lavin, director of collections at Jamestown Rediscovery.

Jamestown’s settlers ran out of food in the winter of 1609-1610 — what was known as the “starving time” — and in desperation ate dogs, rodents, snakes and boots. There is also one account of cannibalism.

It is not known how or why the colonists acquired the native dogs, Lavin said.

One of the native dogs was genetically linked to a dog that was found buried with many others at the site of an ancient Indian settlement across the James River, about 20 miles upstream from Jamestown, near Hopewell, Va., Thomas, of the University of Iowa, said.

“That’s new news,” Lavin said.

Called Weyanoke Old Town, the site dates back several thousand years, Blick wrote.

In the 1970s and ’80s, archaeologists discovered the remains of 117 dogs there. It is believed to be the largest collection of prehistoric dogs from a single site in North America, and perhaps in the Western Hemisphere, according to Blick.

“According to the European colonial records, dogs up and down the Eastern seaboard … were reported to howl and not to bark, giving rise to the term, ‘barkless dogs,’” he wrote.

In two cases, dogs were found buried along with a severed right human forearm.

The reason is a mystery. Blick speculated that the arm may have been a war trophy, buried with the dog “to symbolically keep the enemy at bay in the afterlife.”

Hill, of the University of Iowa, said that for Native Americans, dogs “always had this kind of spiritual importance and power.”

“They quite literally have a foot in the human world and in the natural world, and they go back and forth,” he said.

In another case at Weyanoke, a dog was buried with an adult woman who was found in the fetal position with the animal’s remains curled up over her feet.

“In life, she may have used the dog to keep her feet warm during chilly weather,” Blick wrote. “And thus her fellow villagers felt obliged to provide her this comfort on her journey to the afterlife.”

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