Ancient Siberians Bred, Bought and Traded Arctic Dogs

Genetic breeding programs in the ancient Arctic required fresh DNA from faraway places. Therefore, long-distance trade routes rang with the barks and howls of horny Arctic dogs as they marched northwards to play away from home.

Approximately one million people, representing about 9% of the total population in the Arctic, belongs to one of 40 different ethnic (indigenous) groups. The first Arctic dogs were domesticated around 7,000 years ago when they served indigenous communities as hunting, guard and sledding dogs, helping to haul heavy pray back to campsites.

Paleogeneticist Laurent Frantz, from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, and his team of researchers, have published a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), demonstrating that although Siberian dogs evolved in isolation up until about 7,000 years ago, they were subsequently “bred with dogs imported from other regions, then bought and sold.”

Arctic sled dogs in action. (belyaaa / Adobe Stock)

Arctic sled dogs in action. ( belyaaa / Adobe Stock)

Un-Crossing Bespoke Ancient Siberian Arctic Dog Breeds

In 2016, Live Science reported that Russian and Canadian archeologists had previously uncovered the remains of more than 100 dogs at the 2,000-year-old Ust’-Polui  in Salekhard, on the Yamal Peninsula in northwestern Siberia. At that time, Professor Robert Losey, an archaeologist at the University of Alberta in Canada, said the “carefully buried” remains of another five dogs showed Siberian dogs served “as pets, workers and sources of food – and possibly as sacrificial offerings in religious ceremonies.”

Professor Frantz’s team of researchers analyzed the genomes from 49 dog samples gathered from archaeological sites in Siberia and Eurasia, dated from between 60 and 11,000 years ago. Four of the 49 samples came from Ust’-Polui.

Lead author of the new study, Dr. Tatiana Feuerborn of the University of Copenhagen, wrote that the results of the new DNA study showed evidence that “Arctic dogs evolved in isolation prior to at least 7,000 years ago and that they were imported from Eurasia into Arctic Siberia by at least 2,000 years ago.”

It is suggested that when Arctic Siberian people started becoming pastoral around 2,000 BC, dogs were bred with imported Eurasian species. This ensured that they were best suited to withstand the cold climate while herding reindeer.

Archaeologists have discovered a prehistoric dog graveyard at a 2,000-year-old village near the Arctic Circle in Russia's Siberia, which could be evidence of an ancient Arctic dog breeding program. Source: (University of Alberta/Robert Losey)

Archaeologists have discovered a prehistoric dog graveyard at a 2,000-year-old village near the Arctic Circle in Russia’s Siberia, which could be evidence of an ancient Arctic dog breeding program. Source: (University of Alberta/Robert Losey)

Charting the Frequency of Dog Breeding

The new study says DNA from Siberian dogs dating between the Iron Age and medieval period demonstrated increasing genetic materials from dogs that had come from the Eurasian steppes and Europe. This increase of non-Siberian ancestry among dogs on the Yamal peninsula indicates “the early importation of dogs from distant locations on long-range trade routes for commercial purposes,” according to the paper.

Glass beads and metal artifacts discovered at Ust’-Polui suggested that dogs were maybe also being imported from the steppe zone, the Black Sea region or the Near East. Professor Frantz said the first dogs domesticated in the Arctic around 7,000 years ago were sledding dogs, but the conversion to pastoralism required specialized breeds for reindeer herding.

The mixing of Arctic dogs with other populations “potentially led to the establishment of dog lineages that were both suited to herding and also adapted to the harsh climatic conditions.” Dogs, therefore, were “valuable possessions, and they were bought and sold as early as 2,000 years ago,” according to the new study.

Keeping “Everything” Within the Family

These 2,000-year-old canine cross-breeding experiments led to the wide range of modern Siberian breeds we have today, such as the Siberian Samoyed. Because Samoyed bloodlines are traditionally kept pure, as genetic weaknesses frequently occur when they are cross-bred with foreign breeds, this particular Arctic dog has remained greatly unchanged since the medieval period. Something else that remained fairly pure, and unmixed with foreign DNA, were the Arctic Siberian people.

An unexpected result of the study was that while 2,000 years ago the Siberian dogs were all over their imported mates, the same was not the case for their owners. The paper explains that human genomes in Arctic Siberia remained “very stable” over the period of time studied in the paper and that there is “little indication of genetic input from non-Arctic populations.” Thus, it looks like Siberian clans bred with their own families and greater community groups, at the same time as preferring long-distant lovers for their dogs.

Top image: Woman with arctic dog. Source: Demian / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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