The world’s oldest known domesticated dog from the Americas weighed about 30 pounds, lived 9,400 years ago in Texas, and wound up as some person’s dinner, according to a University of Maine press release.
What’s left of the dog — a skull fragment and a possible foot bone — strongly suggests that the canine was cared for by humans before being butchered, cooked and consumed.
“This is an important scientific discovery that can tell us not only a lot about the genetic history of dogs but of the interactions between humans and dogs in the past,” Samuel Belknap III, who made the discovery, was quoted as saying in the press release. “Not only were they most likely companions as they are today, they served as protection, hunting assistants, and also as a food source.”
Belknap, a UMaine researcher in the Department of Anthropology and Climate Change Institute, plans to publish his findings in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology as well as other scientific journals.
The discovery was somewhat unintended, because Belknap wasn’t trying to dig up old bones from dogs. He was instead conducting thesis research on ancient diet and nutrition of humans during the Holocene Era in the Lower Pecos Region of Texas.
“I didn’t start out looking for the oldest dog in the New World,” Belknap explained. “I started out trying to understand human diet in southwest Texas. It so happens that this person, who lived 9,400 years ago, was eating dog. It just goes to show that sometimes, great scientific discoveries come not when we are looking for specific answers but when we are thorough in our examination of the evidence and open to what data it provides.”
The fossilized human waste was first recovered in the 1970s from Hinds Cave, a major archaeological site in southwest Texas near the Mexico border. While studying the fossil and others, Belknap and colleague Robert Ingraham visually identified the encased bone as belonging to a dog’s skull.
The researchers did some more investigating and determined the bone fragment closely matched that of a short-nosed Indian Dog from New Mexico. The bone then underwent genetic analysis at the Molecular Anthropology Lab at the University of Oklahoma. The DNA supports the conclusion that the skull bone came from a domesticated dog instead of from a wolf, coyote or fox. It was found to be closely related to a Peruvian dog species.
New World dogs didn’t emerge in Peru. Instead it’s thought that a species of Eurasian wolf probably crossed the Bering land bridge into North America when people first began to settle the Americas. Sometime after that, the wolves were domesticated and wound up in South America, Texas and other locations.
Archaeologists and other scientists often find old dog bones, with many researchers purporting to have found the world’s first this or that. The new research holds more weight, as Belknap and his team used a formal dating technique known as Accelerated Mass Spectrometric Radiocarbon Dating to determine the age of the skull fragment.
“For a long time there were several dog bones from Jaguar Cave in Idaho that were believed to be over 11,000 years old. But once they were directly dated, they were found to be only 1,000 to 3000 years old,” he said. “So it’s a cautionary tale of the need to directly date things. It’s important to do it.”
The 9,400-year age of the dog remnant is impressive for the Americas, but other evidence from Europe and Asia indicate that the world’s first dogs were domesticated 15,000 or more years ago.
The ancient Texas dog gives new meaning to hot dog, as it was probably chopped up and cooked in a special dish, Belknap suspects. Dogs were said to be consumed either in times of desperation or times of celebration.
He thinks “it could be that the smaller bones broke off in the butchering process and found their way into a stew or soup.”
Fast forwarding to more modern forms of dog breeding, it’s thought that there are presently fourteen contenders for the title of “world’s oldest breed,” according to the paper “Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog” in the journal Science.
Top photo: Modern Blue Lacy dog. The Blue Lacy is presently thought to be the only dog breed originating from Texas, so it could be related to the prehistoric canine that wound up as someone’s food. Image: Wikimedia Commons. Bottom photo: Peruvian Hairless Dog, a dog species native to Peru; Image: Joel Takv