Sled dogs have been pulling us for millennia, according to archeology

As the dogs cross the finish line in the grueling 1,150-mile (1,850-kilometer) Iditarod this week, they’ll likely be feted with extra treats. But we also owe sled dogs a very nice belly scratch for their role in human history. Ancient dog bones unearthed in the Arctic show that humans have had a close and complex relationship with dogs for thousands of years, from eating them to lovingly burying them with ornaments and , of course, to use them to transport objects. (Find out 5 surprising facts about the Iditarod.)

“Dogs have been essential to human habitation in the Far North,” says Robert Losey of the University of Alberta, who specializes in the archeology of human-animal relationships. Losey has excavated canine burials in Siberia that date back around 8,000 years. These dogs were not only buried in cemeteries, but also buried with jewelry and sometimes even alongside people. (Read new clues about how and when wolves became dogs.)

Fast forward several thousand years, and the dogs of the North meet a different fate. At the 2,000-year-old Ust’-Polui site in the Siberian Arctic, Losey notes that man’s best friend was often dinner. The remains of more than 100 dogs have been found at Ust’-Polui – about four times more than what archaeologists usually see in Arctic sites – and of these remains, more than half belong to young dogs who were shot. and eaten.

Put the dogs to work

Ust’-Polui also happens to be the site of the oldest known depiction of a sled dog, so Losey is particularly intrigued by what the dogs that were not be eaten there was up to.

Dogs that pulled or transported people and goods were, until very recently, crucial to life in the Arctic, but archaeologists know surprisingly little about the history of sled dogs. “Think of how dogs could have affected human migration and how quickly that could be. It’s very different when you have sled dogs than when you just move around on foot or by boat,” explains Losey. “There are implications for a wide range of human history here.” (What makes a good sled dog?)

While archaeologists have also recovered remains of sleds from Ust’-Polui, there is no hard evidence in the form of remains of dogs still fitted with sled harnesses. So instead, Losey and his colleagues are studying the dogs’ bones looking for signs of stress, such as changes in bone shape or strength, which may indicate whether any of the Ust’-Polui dogs have carrying or pulling heavy loads.

Is there a “Sled-Dog Signature?”

To identify exactly what the bones of a sled dog would look like, Losey analyzes the remains of sled dogs from historic Inuit communities in the early 20and century sled dogs (including the dogs of Robert E. Peary’s 1896-1897 expedition to Greenland), modern companion dogs, and modern wolves.

So far, the archaeologist finds that the limbs of modern sled dogs reflect signs of hauling: their bones are quite short and very sturdy. “They are incredibly strong animals,” Losely says. “In a way, they look like a cross between a human weightlifter and a distance runner.”

Losey now compares his analysis of the bone structure of modern sled dogs to dogs found at Ust’-Polui, most of which resemble modern Siberian Huskies in size and skull shape, and is confident that some of his old samples will show the “signature dog sled.”

“Honestly, I think the dog-sledding tradition is probably very, very old, much older than Ust’Polui, but it’s just not evident in the archaeological record,” Losey says. “The very early use of dogs to pull sleds was probably opportunistic, here and there, with smaller sleds and less weight being pulled. We may not see the classic ‘sled dog’ skeletal signature until the dog sledding approaches modern practices, when it becomes really intensive.”

As Losey continues to search for evidence of dog sledding in ancient times, he keeps his job at the office. “I have a black Labrador that doesn’t pull sleds,” he concedes, “although she can pull quite hard on the leash.”

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Bette C. Alvarado