The 9500-year-old remains of a dog found on a remote island off Siberia are remarkably similar to living sled dogs in Greenland, genome sequencing has revealed. The discovery shows that people bred dogs for pulling sleds more than 10,000 years ago.
“We thought it would be a primitive dog, but it’s a long way down the path to domestication,” says Mikkel Sinding at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. “That was quite sensational.”
Excavations of ancient human settlements on Zhokhov Island north of Siberia have revealed the remains of numerous dogs and what look like dog sleds. “It’s the first place in history where you have intense dog use,” Sinding says.
His team sequenced the best-preserved dog found at Zhokhov, along with a 33,000-year-old Siberian wolf and 10 living sled dogs from different places in Greenland, and compared their genomes with each other and with other dog and wolf genomes.
The results show that modern sled dogs in Greenland – whose ancestors were taken there by Inuit people around 850 years ago – are more closely related to the 9500-year-old Zhokhov dog than to other kinds of dogs or to wolves.
“It’s largely the same dogs doing the same thing,” Sinding says.
While the Zhokhov finds are the earliest clear evidence of dogs pulling sleds, ivory artefacts that may have been used to attach reins to sleds have been found elsewhere. Some are 12,000 years old.
The genomes also show sled dogs haven’t acquired any DNA from wolves in the past 9500 years. “The modern wolf is not in them,” Sinding says.
That is surprising because there are numerous reports of sled dogs mating with wolves in Greenland and of hybrids being born. This suggests that hybrids have undesirable characteristics and aren’t kept or allowed to mate with sled dogs, Sinding says.
Sinding had hoped this work might reveal more about the origins of the first dogs, but that remains a mystery. We know their ancestors were a now-extinct kind of wolf but when and where they were first domesticated remains unclear.