By Julian Smith
This is an article excerpt from the Winter 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.
It’s hard to imagine life without dogs. There are 76.8 million of them in the United States today, a little less than one for every four people. But dogs haven’t always been a part of human culture. And once wolves, from which all dogs descended, were domesticated, the animals they became were assimilated into society in different ways across North America.
Archaeologists uncovered the remains of two dogs buried head at the East St. Louis site. The dog on the right showed no signs of trauma or pathologies, while the other dog had a bony growth on its right front paw that likely resulted from an injury. | Credit: ISAS
This dog mandible found at the Janey B. Goode site has butcher marks in the center that could have resulted from the removal of its hide. | Credit: ISAS
In this 1903 picture taken by the noted photographer Edward S. Curtis, three adult Apaches and a child, their horses laden with water jugs, stop beside a stream. A dog can be seen in the lower right corner. | Credit: Edward S. Curtis
Researchers work at the Janey B. Goode site, where numerous dog remains were found. | Credit: ISAS
Domesticated dogs became an important part of early Native American life, and the archaeological record offers some clues about their interactions with humans. It shows how dogs coexisted and bonded with people in many ways, resulting in a unique relationship that went far beyond the modern idea of a pet. Dogs served as tools as well as companions, and they often functioned as a link to the spiritual world. “The shift beyond the initial domestication process is the first part of a fascinating story,” said Kate Britton, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom. “What life was like as a domesticated dog and how humans treated them tells us a lot more about societies in the past.”
DNA testing has found that dogs evolved from an extinct population of gray wolves, a process that began 20,000-40,000 years ago with a genetic split between two wolf populations, one of which went on to become dogs. Archaeologist Angela Perri of Durham University in the United Kingdom believes this was a passive, unintentional process in which wolves gradually became increasingly tame and dependent on humans, who in turn came to rely on them. “It is interesting that the first animal we let into our domestic sphere is one which is both competitive and predatory with humans,” she said. “We had no business domesticating a dangerous carnivore. What were we thinking?”