Around 2,000 years ago, the Inuit people began the daunting process of spreading out across the North American Arctic from Alaska, and new research suggests that their success owes much to the sledging dogs that they took with them, transporting them and their belongings. Appearing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the new study indicates that in helping the Inuit to thrive, these sturdy canines also sowed the genetic seed for modern North American Arctic dogs.
The first people to cross the frozen Bering Strait that connects Siberia to Alaska are thought to have completed this daring migration sometime before 10,000 years ago. The dogs that lived in the American Arctic at the time were small, and therefore of little use to humans, explaining the lack of evidence for dog sledging in the region during this period.
However, when the Inuit culture emerged several millennia later, pioneers brought larger dogs from Siberia and Alaska with them on their journeys eastwards, enabling both creatures to become well established in the icy lands of the American north.
To reach this conclusion, the study authors analyzed the DNA of 922 dogs and wolves that lived in the region over the last 4,500 years. Results showed that as the Inuit began their migration across the American Arctic, the dogs they brought with them were genetically distinguishable from the smaller canines that inhabited the area at the time.
This indicates that, due to the importance of sledging in Inuit daily life, the travelers deliberately introduced a new, larger breed of dog to the American Arctic, rather than attempting to work with the native dog population.
As they spread, local dogs were replaced by this new breed, from which modern populations of North American Arctic dogs are descended.
Commenting on these findings, the study authors note that “the preservation of these distinctive Inuit dogs is likely a reflection of the highly specialized role that dogs played in both long-range transportation and daily subsistence practices in Inuit society.”