A Tail-Wagging Time Traveler

Published:July 7, 2016 by Brendan Wolfe


Our entry on domesticated animals in early Virginia Indian society begins with dogs:

Virginia Indians did not domesticate animals, in large part, because good candidates for domestication did not live in the Eastern Woodlands of North America. The one exception was wolves, which the Indians domesticated into dogs. Likely about knee-high and with an average weight of twenty pounds, these animals were not specialized or even especially tame, and were used only in hunting land fowl such as wild turkey. According to the Jamestown colonists, the Powhatan Indians did not eat their dogs but may have sacrificed them ritually.

Reader Sharon McKenzie sent us a note a few weeks ago suggesting that “these dogs, or rather, their descendants, still exist today, in the form of a primitive landrace/breed known as a Carolina dog.”

A New York Times article from three years ago explains that these dogs were discovered in the wild in South Carolina and Georgia back in the 1970s and recognized as a separate breed by the American Kennel Club. It was speculated that these animals predated European arrival in the Americas, and now, the article reports, a scientific study corroborates that.

A team led by Peter Savolainen at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden has reported that several dog breeds in the Americas—among them the Peruvian hairless, the Chihuahua and the Carolina dog—are without some genetic markers indicative of European origin, suggesting they arrived in an earlier migration from Asia.

So much has changed, obviously, in the last few millennia, that finding something that hasn’t—it’s bound to be an object of fascination. “These primitive dogs started living near people tens of thousands of years ago,” the article concludes, “finding a place just out of sight of human encampments—where, if the current studies hold up, they steadfastly remain.”

IMAGES: A detail from an early depiction of Indian life at Roanoke by John White shows a dog; a modern-day Carolina dog