Imagine a viking dog – long, lean, grizzled like its masters. It’s nestled down in the bow of a boat, curled on top of a thin blanket. It’s fur is matted with brine – it’s ears ring with the seagull’s cries. The boat ride has been long and harsh – a dog has to have already proven it’s worth many times over to be worth the bread and water. But this one was. The crew is happy to have it with them. Their destination is Vinland, across the North Atlantic, at the very edge of North America. And, if the gulls are any indication, they’re close.
Imagine the boat grinding onto a shoal – the men jumping out, hauling ropes through the waist-deep spray. The dog jumps out with them. They slowly drag their ship onto the pebble beach. Waiting at the treeline are a group of men. They are thinner than the vikings, quick-witted and cautious. The vikings call them skraelings. They are the native people of Vinland. The vikings: trespassers. Or merchants. Or invaders. It’s not always clear.
Imagine the viking dog at it’s master’s side as he walks towards the native group. And at the native leader’s side – another dog. Different, yes, perhaps a bit smaller, or a different color, but still recognizably a dog. Two groups of humans and two groups of dogs, separated by over 10,000 years of divergence, meeting again on the rough Vinland shores.
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We know that Native Americans had domestic dogs long before the arrival of Europeans. The Taínos of Jamaica hunted conies with small, silent dogs called alcos. Darwin himself noted that the tribes of Tierra del Fuego had small dogs trained to hunt otter. Dogs were pets, hunters, even pieces of art long before any Europeans stepped foot in the new world.
Unfortunately, most of the native breeds disappeared along with their resident cultures. The alcos are long extinct. And what breeds didn’t go extinct were assumed to have quickly interbred with the invasion European dog breeds.
However, recent DNA analysis hints proves that this isn’t true. A handful of new world breeds can trace their genetic origin back to Pre-Columbian times. Purebred Inuit, Eskimo and Greenland dog, Chihuahua, xoloitzcuintli and perro sín pelo del Peru are all show strong resistance to European interbreeding. These are native dogs. Two other stocks, Alaskan Malamutes and Carolina dogs also show intriguing results.
It’s interesting to see living examples of heritage. That viking must have been proud of his dog to bring it all the way across the ocean. The native leader must have been just as proud of his. We often think the trappings of culture are all material, but people often define themselves not just by ideas and goods, but also by what animals they choose to spend their lives with.