January 23rd, 2010
As a young archaeologist, Jeff Blick helped make an astounding discovery in Virginia – the skeletons of 112 dogs buried by American Indians nearly 1,000 years ago.
He is still studying the bones, and he hopes the latest tests will guide scientists to study the ancient transformation of wolf to dog.
After 13 or so years of spent digging ended in the ’80s, Blick’s work continues in his archaeology lab at Georgia College and State University. Blick and his students retrieved DNA samples from the dog skeletons and recently sent them to California and Germany for analysis.
Not surprisingly, all dogs carry some wolf genes, indicating that every breed, from chihuahuas to Newfoundlands, arose from a common ancestor.
The bones demonstrate that these prehistoric dogs from Virginia stood about 16 inches high, about the size of today’s Shetland sheepdog, and ranged from 18 to 32 pounds.
Blick also explains that Columbus and other Spanish, English, and French explorers mention that up and down the eastern seaboard, to the Great Lakes, and to the northwest coast, that Indian dogs were bark-less and howled instead. The explorers called these dogs wolflike in appearance.
The Virginia dogs are too old to have interbred with those of European colonists because they date from around 1020 to 1273 A.D. “This could be a glimpse of the pure American dog,” Blick said. “A lot of these aboriginal American dogs have either gone extinct or they were intermixed with European breeds to the point that they’re no longer the same as they were.”
The big question is where those dogs came from.
A 2002 study concluded that wolves were domesticated in eastern Asia and crossed the Bering land bridge with humans into the Americas. In 2009, another study reached a different conclusion: that the earliest dogs came from Eurasia or northern Africa and spread, along with humans, throughout the world.
Another possibility exists – that dogs were domesticated not just in one location but in many, including North America. With the Virginia skeletons, Blick hopes to shed some light on that prospect.