Unique sledge dogs helped the Inuit thrive in the North American Arctic

A unique group of dogs helped the Inuit conquer the tough terrain of the North American Arctic, a major new analysis of the remains of hundreds of animals shows.

The results of a major new study on the remains of Artic sledge dogs reveals that the Inuit brought specialised dogs with them when they migrated from Siberia over the Bering Strait into North America.

’Instead of adopting local dogs they would have come across during their migration, the Inuit instead maintained their own dog breeds brought from Siberia, suggesting they were keen to enhance or keep the special features they had,’ says Greger Larson, co-author of the study and professor at the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford. ’By analysing the shape of elements from 391 dogs, we can see that the Inuit brought over larger dogs with a proportionally narrower cranium to the dogs that already existed in North America.’

Experts had thought the Inuit used dogs to pull sledges, and this is the first study which shows they introduced a new dog population to the region to do this. These dogs then spread across the North American Arctic alongside Inuit migrants. The Inuit dogs are the direct ancestors of modern Arctic sledge dogs, although their appearance has continued to change over time.

’Archaeological evidence has shown us that before the Inuit arrived in North America, dog sledging was a rarity,’ says study co-lead author Tatiana Feuerborn, from the Globe Institute in Denmark and the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Sweden. ’Our analysis of the DNA suggests dogs brought by the Inuit were distinct from the earlier dogs of the North American Arctic to fill specialist role in helping communities thrive in this hostile environment by aiding with transportation and hunting.’

The Inuit were specialised sea mammal hunters, and were more mobile than other groups living in the Arctic, migrating huge distances across the region over 1,000 years ago, with the help of dog sledges and watercraft. Today, sledge dogs whose origins can be traced back to the Inuit period continue to be an important part of Arctic communities.

The DNA of the ancient Inuit sledge dogs lives on today in the modern sledge dog. DNA fromá921 dogs and wolves who lived during the last 4,500 years shows dogs from Inuit sites from around 2,000 years ago were genetically different from the dogs already in the region, and are connected to modern sledge dogs.

Dr Carly Ameen, an archaeologist from the University of Exeter who led the study, says, ’Thousands of years ago there was not the huge number of dog breeds as we know them today. Through analysing the DNA and morphology of the remains of hundreds of dogs we’ve found that the dogs used by the Inuit had distinctive skull and teeth shapes, and would have likely looked different in life to dogs already in the Arctic.’