Ancient Sled Dogs Helped Ice Age Humans Beat The Cold

Ancient dogs adapted to freezing cold helped early humans survive in the Arctic more than 10,000 years ago, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.

The study compares the genetics of modern ‘sled dog’ breeds – including Alaskan and Siberian huskies used for dog sled racing, as well as Alaskan malamutes and Greenland dogs – to the DNA of a dog that lived 9,500 years ago on the island of Zhokhov, above the Arctic Circle in eastern Siberia, where archaeological evidence of early dog ​​sledding has been found.

Researchers have determined that the sled dog breeds and the ancient dog share many of the same genes, forming a distinct lineage that reveals the antiquity of sled dogs and alludes to their importance to human survival when humans moved on. widespread in the Arctic towards the end of the last ice age.

“Being able to move large amounts of material, kill and food across large spaces in such difficult terrain would have been a huge advantage,” said Shyam Gopalakrishnan, a population geneticist at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the study with the geneticist. Mikkel Sinding. “This may have been instrumental in the colonization of the Arctic by humans.”

Gopalakrishnan and his colleagues compared DNA from the ancient Siberian dog to DNA taken from 134 modern dogs, including 10 dogs from Greenland – a breed believed to be related to ancient sled dogs.

They also compared DNA from the jawbone of a 33,000-year-old wolf found in northeastern Siberia, which is similar to the original genome of the wolf from which modern dogs descended.

Their results showed that among dogs, Greenland dogs were genetically closest to wolves, while other sled dog breeds were genetically closer to Greenland dogs than to other dogs.

They determined that modern sled dog breeds share a genetic lineage that is at least 9,500 years old – and suggested that sled dogs may have been genetically distinct from other dogs around 15,000 years ago.

The ancient Siberian dog showed several adaptations that would have helped him survive in very cold conditions, including longer fur and thick pads on his paws, which may have helped him run farther on the trail. snow and ice.

Modern sled dog breeds retain these adaptations, Gopalakrishnan said.

There is also evidence that modern breeds of sled dogs can thrive on a high-fat, low-starch diet, which became normal for humans in the Arctic many thousands of years ago when they focused on hunting marine mammals, such as seals, walruses and whales.

“Most of the food came from hunting, so these dogs were probably fed the remains of the human population that lived there,” he said. “It could be that this adaptation reflects the fact that [the dogs] live with them.

Research also supports the idea that the domestication of dogs happened around 35,000 years ago – much earlier than previously thought.

Scientists used to believe that humans domesticated dogs from wolves 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, but genetic evidence supports the much earlier date.

“Dogs already had different populations 10,000 years ago, and one would imagine that domestication happened long before that,” Gopalakrishnan said. “So the original idea of ​​10,000 to 15,000 years for domestication just doesn’t hold up.”

Robert Losey, an archaeologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton who has studied ancient dog sledding in Russia and North America, said the research pushes the earliest date of dog sledding to at least 10 000 years. “These dogs adapted very early to living with people in the Arctic, in these cold environments.”

Losey said the ancient dog sled was likely different from modern dog sledding, where up to 20 dogs pull large sleds and several people.

“I guess there were only one or two dogs, maybe pulling a sled, or pulling a sled in combination with people,” he said. “And they were probably carrying bags on their backs.”

Animal geneticist Ben Sacks of the University of California, Davis said the study shed light on the origins of Neolithic dog breeds, including Greenland and Inuit dogs and Australian and New Zealand wild dogs. -Guinea.

“The two Native Americans [dogs] and Australasia’s wild dingoes are threatened with extinction, so the study should give a boost to conservation efforts for these populations,” he said.

Bette C. Alvarado