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Lost dogs of the New World

Part of the What Do You About That? series

by Ruth Orr
AMERICAS — Now I’ll be the first to admit I’m a cat person.  I like dogs alright, but something about the complete disregard a cat has for my feelings makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.  (Maybe I need therapy?) At any rate, the unwavering loyalty and dedication dogs have for their people tends to overwhelm me if I spend much longer than an afternoon with a pooch.  It’s not their fault though— dogs are man’s best friend for a reason.  They have been our constant companions for more than 30,000 years, and we have shaped and molded their evolution the whole way along to suit our needs better, turning them from the hulking wolves of our ancestral nightmares to derpy lapdogs.  We made them this way, so I can’t blame them for being so into us.  Dogs are one of those universal truths.  Where there are people, there are dogs, across time, and across space.  Specifically, across continents.

If you go far enough back in Fido’s family tree, you’ll get a wolf.  Specifically, you’ll get a wolf that was probably native to Asia, and is no longer with us.  These extinct wolves split off into separate lineages, producing both gray wolves and our own home-grown good boys.  As a result, gray wolves are the closest living relative of our modern dogs, but they’re not grandparents, they’re cousins.  The once-mighty  animals that were destined to become chihuahuas were soon taken up as brothers in arms in the fight to survive the harsh, cold world our forefolks inhabited, and the rest is history.  Or more accurately, pre-history, as all of this happened long before writing was a thing, so we have only fragments of ancient doggy DNA to guide us here.

A few weeks ago I did a column on who the first people in the Americas were.  There’s no real conclusive answer about their identity or when exactly they arrived, because again, this is all really old, and we can only know as much as we’re able to piece together from broken stuff we dig up.  But whoever they were, odds are good, they brought dogs with them.  If not the first wave, then it happened sooner rather than later, because the peoples of the Americas definitely had dogs, and they were a critical component of life from the bottom of South America through to the Arctic tundra.
These New World dogs, often called pre-contact dogs to reference their existence on these continents before the arrival of European colonists, were further split from the dog breeds that were developing in Asia and Europe.  While they may have had a common ancestor, they diverged hard, creating a whole series of new breeds.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dogs that were bred in the Americas filled many of the same roles as European dog breeds— after all, humans still had the same needs.  Dogs like the Tahltan Bear Dog were bred to help hunt, well, bears, and other large prey.  The Hare Indian dogs of Canada filled the same role as greyhounds in Europe, being bred for speed and to hunt small and fast game. In South America, the Chiribaya and Inca people used dogs, including the Chiribaya Dog to help herd their livestock, namely llamas.

As the North and South American continents lacked horses and cattle, dogs had to step in to fill those roles in society too.  They became draft animals, specialized for pulling heavy loads across long distances.  Sled dogs are a prime example of that, with animals like the Alaskan Malamute and Greenland Dogs being bred for strength and endurance and, if you’ve ever had to walk one on a leash, you’ll know they often have a deep, instinctive need to pull.  It wasn’t just horses and cows dogs had to fill in for either— the fluffy sheep that have delightfully warm wool were absent on this side of the world too, and so the Salish Wool Dog was bred up around what is now Washington state and British Colombia.  The dogs were bred to be clean and white, and had thick wooly warm coats.  They were collected every May or June and sheared, the same way you would a sheep.  Their owners would make ceremonial blankets and clothes with the wool, though it was expensive and highly prized, so it wasn’t an every-day use thing.

Dogs were also used as food by some groups, though not all.  While I can practically see you recoiling in horror at the thought of eating Princess, if you were raised in a world where it was no different than eating a Big Mac, you wouldn’t have any issue with it.  Our culture today says dogs are pets and only pets, so deviating from that is scary, but there’s really no true reason why we decided that cows are snacks and dogs are not.  Besides, not all Americans (and I’m talking the people who are actually native to these continents, not necessarily the folks who stand for the flag at football games today) ate dogs.  For plenty of them, dogs held a spiritual and sacred place in life.  Sometimes that didn’t work out much better for the dog than being dinner, as there are plenty of sites we’ve found that have the remains of dogs sacrificed in a variety of rituals.  The Peruvian Inca Orchid dog, more commonly known as the Peruvian Hairless Dog, was thought to have supernatural abilities, the ability to see spirits, and were guides to the afterlife.

Now here’s the depressing part.  Most of these friendly native dogs are no more.  When ol’ Colombo arrived in 1492, he brought with him a series of nasty diseases and more than a pinch of genocide.  The Native American population was decimated, with some estimates ranging all the way up to 95% of the population being wiped out by guns or germs or both.  But it wasn’t just the humans who were hurting.  Because Europeans also brought their own furry amigos to the party, and the same way the Native people had no defenses against European disease, neither did their dog companions.  European dog diseases burned through the American dog population.  True to form, the colonizers also preferred their own pooches, and either discouraged the breeding of native dogs, or killed them outright as pests or to prevent them from sullying their own precious doggy bloodlines.  The end result was absolute devastation.

It didn’t take long for entire breeds to vanish entirely.  Almost all of them, including the ones I listed earlier, with the exception of the malamute and Greenland Dog, are gone from this earth.  We only know them from ancient remains and a handful of stories.  Even dog breeds we all assume are proper Americans have been heavily mixed through the years with European dogs, so while they may still look like their ancient counterparts on the outside, a lot of their DNA is that of European interloper dogs.   After analyzing genetic material from 71 pre-contact dog burials and then comparing it to 145 modern ‘American’ dogs, researchers found only five dogs had any DNA that matched their “ancestors”— and even then, it was only about 4 percent the same at most.  The dogs of the New World have been lost to us.

Except, they got a tiny bit of revenge.  It turns out there is one pre-contact dog that is still going strong.  And I do mean dog, singularly.  In the dog world, there is a cancer that is sexually transmitted.  Without going too deep into a biology lecture here, the cancer cells are spread from dog to dog, but they don’t change to house the new animal’s DNA, they keep their original genetic makeup.  Which means every dog that has this cancer is actually growing in it a clump of cells that belong to an entirely different dog.  And because the cancer cells don’t change up to match their new hosts, they still feature their original DNA— that of a single North American dog that lived 8,225 years ago.  Because we have that ancient dog’s DNA, we know some stuff about it.  It was dark, either black or brown, and had more than a little bit of coyote ancestry mixed in there.  It was inbred.  And that inbreeding was probably a critical part of making this cancer something that could jump between dogs— usually a body’s immune system fights off any cells that aren’t its own, but if everybody’s really closely related… those new cells might not have registered as a problem.  That gave the cancer the chance to get good at invading other animals, growing, and hiding, so now it can infect any dog it comes into contact with, including dog cousins, like coyotes and jackals.

So there you have it.  We used to have a whole bunch of other cool dogs around that would’ve made great albeit annoyingly loyal pets but disease and war means I’m stuck with the office’s goofy floppy-eared German Shepherd instead.  Love you, Tonks, really!