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Shappa clearing dog traces, Cape Dorset, 1929Photo: J.D. Soper;
courtesy Library and Archives Canada
Investigation of the pre-Columbian Ancestry of
Today's Dogs of the Americas
The study of a broad variety of dogs across North and South America, including the Arctic, as well as dogs of specific breeds and free ranging "street dogs".
Peter Savolainen, Ph.D.
KTH - Royal Institute of Technology
Science for Life Laboratory
School of Biotechnology
Division of Gene Technology
SE-17121 Solna, Sweden
Tel: +46-8-524 81 422
Mobile: +46-70-062 4036
On July 10 2013 my research team and I published a genetic study of North and South American dogs (including Arctic breeds) in the scientific journal Proceeding of the Royal Society, series B. I will here give a summary and explanation of the results, intended for laymen. I will present the conclusions that I think can be drawn based on the analyses and, perhaps equally important, which conclusions are not correct. Technical details will be avoided: for that I refer to our original article.
The goal of our study was to determine the ancestry of today's American dogs. Specifically, we have analyzed to what extent these dogs trace their ancestry to the original indigenous American populations, and to what extent they have been mixed with European dogs after the arrival of the Europeans.
The breeds investigated were: Inuit Sled Dog, Greenland Dog, Canadian Eskimo Dog, Alaskan Malamute, Chihuahua, Mexican Hairless Dog (Xolo) and Peruvian Hairless Dog (Perro sin pelo). The free ranging dogs were village/street dogs from across the Americas, including Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Columbia, and also the so-called Carolina dogs, which are found in South Carolina in the United States.
The basis for our study is that there is a large difference in the DNA types that are found among European dogs on the one hand, and East Asian and Siberian dogs on the other hand. The indigenous American dogs were introduced via Bering Strait and should therefore be closely related to East Asian and Siberian dogs.
This knowledge is based on analyses of a large number of dogs from Europe (639 individuals from all types of European dogs across Europe) and East Asia (889 individuals) and also some Siberian dogs (95 individuals). Therefore, if a DNA type of an American dog was not found among the European dogs (or if similar types were not found), we can with great certainty conclude that it is very unlikely that it ever existed in Europe, and therefore must have come via Bering Strait. Therefore, looking at the DNA types of American dogs, we can in most cases deduce whether the DNA types (and thus the dogs carrying the DNA types to the Americas) were introduced from East Asia/Siberia or from Europe.
Our analyses showed that all dog breeds we investigated had some degree of ancestry from East Asia/Siberia and in most cases there is little or no indication of hybridization with European dogs.
Thus the Chihuahua, Xolo and Perro sin pelo all clearly have an indigenous American origin. The degree of mixing with European dogs in later times is not totally clear. There may have been virtually no mixing at all, but possibly up to 30%. In any case, the influence from European dogs has been relatively limited.
The free-ranging dogs seemed in general to originate entirely from European dogs. This is true especially for most South American populations in Argentina and Brazil. An exception to this were the Carolina dogs. Some of these dogs carried DNA types of typical Asian origin. The sample was small so an exact calculation of the proportion of indigenous ancestry is not possible, but approximately 40% of the dogs carried the indigenous DNA types. The Carolina dogs have been suggested to be an aboriginal dog population because they look phenotypically a bit like South Asian dogs, but this theory has not been generally believed as plausible. Thus, it was surprising also to us that our analyses indeed indicated an indigenous ancestry for this feral population.
Mexican and Bolivian "village dogs" were also an exception to the rule that the free-ranging dogs are generally European runaways. These populations were heavily mixed with European dogs, but clearly had a heritage from the indigenous dog population. Approximately 25% of their ancestry was indigenous and 75% European.
Now we come to what I assume is of more direct interest for the readers of The Fan Hitch, the Arctic dogs.
We analyzed 18 Inuit Sled Dogs, 11 Greenland Dogs and 9 Canadian Eskimo Dogs. These breeds are generally supposed to be the same dog population, but we objectively kept them apart in our analyses. We also analyzed 9 Alaskan Malamutes.
We found that Inuit Sled Dogs, Greenland Dogs and Canadian Eskimo Dogs had almost identical gene pools, in accordance with them being a single population. Most of these dogs had a DNA type called A31 that is unique for this population. Since we have very comprehensive records of European dogs, we have a good knowledge about which DNA types can be expected to be found there, while for Siberia only 95 dogs have been analyzed so far. Therefore it is very unlikely that this DNA type would have been introduced from Europe, while an origin from Siberia is possible. Importantly, conclusive evidence for the pre-Columbian origin of the A31 DNA type has been given in another study.
Unknown to us, a study of ancient archaeological samples and modern samples of dogs from Greenland and Alaska was done in parallel with our study by Sarah Brown, PhD and her colleagues, and published in March 2013. This study was summarized in an earlier issue of The Fan Hitch. Through these two studies, we now have very solid data about the ancestry of arctic North American dogs.
In the study by Sarah Brown, 600-700 year old pre-European archaeological samples of dogs from Alaska and Greenland were analyzed and shown to have the same unique DNA type, A31, as modern Inuit Sled Dogs. This gives strong evidence that ancestors of today's Inuit Sled Dogs were present 600-700 years ago in the same area as today.
In conclusion, Inuit Sled Dogs, Greenland Dogs and Canadian Eskimo Dogs are very closely related breeds, which trace their ancestry to indigenous North American dogs, present since at least 600-700 years. There seems to have been no or very limited subsequent hybridization with European dogs.
We also studied Alaskan Malamutes. The majority of these dogs carry another DNA type, A29, which is absent from Europe, but it is quite common in Siberia, among Siberian Huskies. This DNA type was also found in 600-700 year old pre-European archaeological samples of dogs from Alaska in the study by Sarah Brown. Thus, these dogs also likely trace their ancestry to Siberia and hybridization with European dogs seems to have been relatively limited. A complicating factor is that Alaskan Malamutes are known to have been interbred with Siberian Huskies which also carry the DNA type A29, possibly explaining why Alaskan Malamutes have this DNA type. However, it seems unlikely that the hybridization with Siberian Huskies would have occurred at such a great scale as to completely dominate the gene pool of today's Alaskan Malamutes. Therefore the most likely scenario is that Alaskan Malamutes largely have indigenous American ancestry.
Now is the time to discuss what we can and cannot conclude about the ancestry and history of populations based on our analyses.
Our analyses of modern dogs can trace the ancestry of a population but can otherwise say little about the history of this population. Thus, we can tell whether the ancestry goes back to Europe or East Asia. We can also estimate the proportions of ancestry from the two different populations. However, we cannot tell when the population developed. It may have been 10,000 years ago or just 100 years ago. Nor can we tell from how many ancestors it developed.
However, for Inuit Sled Dogs the analyses of ancient dog samples by Sarah Brown and her colleagues offer some additional information also about the history of this dog population. These analyses tell us that 600-700 years ago dogs in precisely the same geographical region had the same DNA types as today's Inuit Sled Dogs. Therefore most probably ancestors of today's Inuit Sled Dogs were in place in Arctic America at this time. And this population has been virtually free from hybridization with other dogs since then.
Concerning the Alaskan Malamute, it seems that these dogs also trace their ancestry to indigenous American dogs. However, this does not mean that the Alaskan Malamute has an ancient origin. The breed itself was developed during the last 100 years. Thus, the ancestry of Alaskan Malamutes is probably ancient, but this does not mean that the breed must be ancient.
Here it should also be noted that the two studies were based on analyses of mitochondrial DNA which is a special kind of DNA inherited only maternally (from mother to offspring). This implies that we can only observe the maternal ancestry of the populations. This is probably not a great problem since males and females to the greater part share the same history; if females migrated from somewhere, most probably males followed. However, our analyses cannot tell to what extent these populations have been hybridized with male European dogs.
To conclude this text, I want to summarize what conclusions I draw about the origins of Inuit Sled Dogs from the two studies:
1. Inuit Sled Dogs originated from dogs that arrived in North America from Asia via the Bering Strait in pre-Columbian time.
2. Inuit Sled Dogs are closely related to Greenland Dogs and Canadian Eskimo Dogs.
3. Ancestors of today's Inuit Sled Dogs were present 600-700 years ago in Greenland.
4. Hybridization with European dogs has been very limited, on the female side.
5. There seems to be no relation between the arctic breeds and other North and South American breeds. Therefore these populations probably arrived at different times, possibly with the ancestors of the related human groups: Inuit and other arctic populations, and First Nations/American Indians respectively.
As mentioned, there are limitations to which conclusions can be drawn from studies based on mitochondrial DNA. However, the technology for DNA analysis is now developing fast. Therefore there is no doubt that comprehensive studies of the technically more demanding "normal" nuclear DNA will be made on dogs of the Americas within just five or ten years. Based on these analyses, we will get information about such details as the approximate time of arrival to the Americas and the number of migrating animals, and we will see to what extent the history of male dogs correlate with the history of females presented here.