Inuit Ancestors Conquered North American Arctic by Bringing Their Own Dogs With Them, Archaeologists Discover

The ancestors of Inuits in North America brought their own dogs with them when they migrated from Alaska and Siberia, introducing sledging to the Arctic region. Archaeologists believe these dogs helped the Inuit conquer this inhospitable landscape, helping them to travel and hunt more effectively than if they had adopted dogs already present in the region.

An international team of researchers analyzed the remains of hundreds of Arctic dogs dating back 1,000 years, along with the DNA of over 900 dogs and wolves that lived in the region over the last 4,500 years. From this, they were able to build a picture of population changes that corresponded to the arrival of Inuits.

Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, is the first to show that the ancestors of modern-day Inuits introduced a new, specialized dog population to the area rather than adopting local, much smaller populations already present. This indicates they wanted to build on the features of their dogs as they were useful in expanding across this inhospitable landscape.

"People have been interested in dogs and in particular sled dogs for a long time, both in archaeology and other disciplines. However, these studies didn't take into account the dogs that were present in the Arctic before the Inuit period," study leader Carly Ameen, from the U.K.'s University of Exeter, told Newsweek. "Instead they focused on how the Inuit dogs were related to modern sledge dogs, but what we wanted to investigate was how did these Inuit dogs compare to dogs already in North America. These questions of course hold important information for Arctic dog populations, but also can help us understand how humans who were migrating around the globe interacted with and utilised their dogs."

Researchers knew that sledge dogs living today would at least in part be descended from dogs that arrived during the Inuit period. However, the findings showed the modern population appears to be directly descended from this population, although further genetic research would be needed to confirm this. After their arrival, the local population of dogs was almost completely replaced, Ameen said.

arctic sledge dog
An Arctic sledge dog. Researchers have discovered Inuit ancestors brought these dogs with them when they migrated to North America. iStock

Tatiana Feuerborn, one of the study authors, said the sledge dogs probably helped Inuit ancestors to reach the North American Arctic in the first place: "The usage of dogs most likely increased the speed at which they could travel, facilitating the migration across the region within a generation or two as suggested by archaeological evidence. Furthermore dog sledging on the sea ice will have also enabled them to efficiently hunt the sea mammals which they subsisted on."

That the dogs were then kept on indicates their value, Ameen added. "[This] helps us to reinforce the ideas that these dogs were specialised for sledge pulling which is also introduced to North America during this time period," she said. "This suggests it was important to the Inuit that the dogs pulling the sledges were a specific type."

Sledge dogs still serve an important role to the Inuits in the North American Arctic today, although their populations are now falling. "Industrialisation, changes in lifestyle, the preferential use of snowmobiles, and outbreaks of disease have resulted in reduced population sizes in Arctic dogs," Feuerborn said. "Greenland possesses the largest population of working Arctic dogs in the North American Arctic, the Greenland Sledge Dog, which are still used largely in the same way they have been for centuries. However similar to Alaska and Canada they have been impacted by the phenomenon such as industrialisation and disease. In the last 20 years alone the number of dogs has reduced by over half."