By Linda Cole
The majority of our modern day dog breeds have been selectively bred for particular characteristics and behaviors for around 200 years. Herding dogs have been used by humans for centuries, however. Researchers believed they were the first canines to be developed to do a specific job, around 7,000 years ago in southwest Asia. But new discoveries in Siberia suggest that humans may have bred dogs for a specific purpose even earlier, at least 9,000 years ago. These dogs were likely bred to pull sleds and hunt alongside humans.
Zhokhov Island is a small remote land in a chain of islands located off the northern coast of Siberia. Hunter-gathers who lived in areas across the Arctic must have been hardy souls to survive year-round frigid temperatures at the top of the world. These ancient people relied on simple stone and bone weapons when hunting – not exactly sophisticated or effective at bringing down fierce prey the size of polar bears.
Based on archaeological evidence from sites across the Arctic where humans were known to live, it’s believed that early humans rarely attempted to hunt polar bears. There have been very few bones found at archaeological sites, except for Zhokhov Island. Here, humans succeeded at hunting polar bears in large numbers and without the use of guns. But one of the most exciting discoveries researchers made is that these ancient people may have been the first to selectively breed dogs to perform a specific task, and this might provide a clue about why dogs were domesticated to begin with: to do a job that benefited humans.
Russian archaeologist Vladmir Pitulko has been excavating sites on Zhokhov Island since 1989. In the Stone Age era, Zhokhov was still connected to Siberia. It became an island later when sea waters rose and cut off the land route. Preserved in permafrost for around 9,000 years, 13 semi-subterranean homes have been excavated. A surprising find from the research was approximately 400 polar bear bones at two of the sites. This is the oldest and largest number of polar bear bones left by human hunters ever found. Dog bones and remnants of wooden sleds were also found.
When Zhokhov Island was still connected to Siberia, Stone Age people who hunted the region had to travel hundreds of miles across frigid territory in pursuit of reindeer, caribou and polar bears. These animals were essential for food, warm clothing and for constructing tents. A means of transportation to hunt for and then carry their prey back home would have been a necessity.
At the time of these discoveries, even though Pitulko suspected that dogs were bred by ice age human hunters to pull sleds, he didn’t have any proof of an ancient breeding program. He was finally able to confirm his belief after comparing two of the most complete skulls and bone fossils found at the excavation area with today’s Siberian Huskies and wolves from the area. By measuring the height of the snout to the skull length and height of the cranium to the skull length, researchers were able to determine that one skull was a dog and the other one was probably closer to a wolf-dog hybrid.
Pitulko wasn’t surprised to find that the ancient bones belonged to canines, but didn’t expect to find evidence to confirm his long held belief these ancient dogs were part of a breeding program developed for a specific purpose – to pull sleds. The research team estimated the sizes of the 11 individual dogs found and concluded that 10 likely resembled Siberian Huskies and weighed 35-55 pounds. The wolf-dog hybrid was about 64 pounds and probably looked like an Alaskan Malamute. Size is important, because the dogs resembling Huskies would have been heavy enough to pull a sled over long distances while regulating their body temperature to keep from overheating. The larger dogs may have been used to hunt polar bears. It certainly wasn’t a modern day type of breeding program, but there is evidence these ancient humans had some idea about breeding dogs for a specific purpose.
Research being conducted on Zhokhov Island may also provide some clues as to why dogs were domesticated to begin with. Wolves weren’t the only animals to hang around the campsites of early humans. Foxes and badgers found easy food in garbage dumps, too. But it was the ancestors of our canine friends and ancient humans who discovered that they could both benefit from a shared alliance. Archaeological evidence indicates that the people living on Zhokhov Island not only worked side-by side-with dogs, they also had the earliest breeding program to develop canines for a specific job.
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