Early North American explorers bred dogs so they would have ‘woolly hair’ that could be sheared like a sheep – and then spun it into clothing and blankets, a study found.
Iain McKenchnie and colleagues from the Hakai Institute in British Columbia, Canada, examined the records of more than 170,000 canine bones dug up at 210 sites in the Pacific northwest.
The first humans arrived in North America from Eurasia about 11,000 years ago and they found very few animals suitable for domestication, McKenchnie said.
This prompted them to turn to the dogs they took with them and over generations bred them for different purposes, including small woolly dogs for clothing.
According to the team other dogs were pressed into service as draught animals, pulling sleds and others were used more conventionally for hunting.
Researchers found two ‘common’ types of dogs in the archaeological record – a smaller ‘wool’ dog up to 19.5 inches high and a village dog for hunting up to 23 inches high
Bones studied as part of this research came from the Pacific northwest including Oregon and Alaska and most were from domestic dogs rather than wolves or foxes.
The most common type of remains belonged to a woolly spitz-like dog that was knee high to a human and showed evidence of being sheared like sheep.
This backs up a historical diary entry from the early 19th century made at a trading post in British Colombia that described the people of the Cowichan tribe travelling in canoes filled with ‘dogs more resembling [lambs] shown of their wool’.
The dog remains discovered by the Hakai and University of Oregon researchers were distinctly split into two types – big and small.
Iain McKenchnie and colleagues from the Hakai Institute examined the records of more than 170,000 canine bones dug up at 210 sites in the Pacific northwest. Stock image
The bigger dogs were relatively tall and rangy, likely used in hunting, companionship and for pulling sleds and carts in the frozen regions – as seen in Alaska today.
These larger dogs were relatively few in number compared to the second type, a smaller dog that would have been covered in wool-like fur.
This suggests evidence of ‘roles for dogs including hunting, companionship, and wool production in a region lacking terrestrial agriculture and domestic livestock,’ the researchers wrote in their paper.
Carly Ameen from the University of Exeter, a canine expert not involved in this study, told The Times dogs replaced the roles of animals the settlers left behind in Eurasia.
‘Dogs were used to fill a lot of these technical roles. You end up with sled dogs in the Arctic to pull things around,’ Ameen said.
‘And you also get these really interesting occurrences of some dogs that were used for their wool, much like people in Eurasia were using sheep.’
The authors say that breeding small dogs for wool-and-hair textiles enabled the production of economically valuable material for trade.
This was then further enhanced by using the