Siberian dogs shaped by ancient long distance trade | Polarjournal
In today’s Arctic settlements in Arctic Russia, dogs still play an important role. Mostly the animals are used as sled dogs and as guards against polar bears. There are also major differences in the way animals are kept between the Arctic and Western cultures. Photo: Annina Egli

Man’s best friend is the dog, it says. This is certainly true for many indigenous peoples, in whose culture the four-legged friend is almost indispensable. This includes virtually all Arctic cultures. But how did the hardy and strong dog breeds we know today develop? This question was examined by a large international research team with a surprising result: millennia-old long-distance trade played a major role.

The international research team, led by Professor Laurent Frantz of Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, concluded that the dogs, which had lived among the Arctic peoples like the Nenets in northwestern Siberia, had had little contact with other dog breeds for thousands of years. Only with an emerging long-distance trade about 2’000 years ago, which was also accompanied by great sociological and cultural changes, the Arctic dogs mixed with breeds from Europe and the steppe areas in southern Russia to the Near East. “While Arctic dogs evolved in near isolation from other dog populations until at least 7,000 years ago, genetic information from younger dogs from the Iron Age onwards into the Middle Ages consistently shows significant interference from dogs from the Eurasian steppes and Europe,” explains the study’s lead author, Dr. Tatiana Feuerborn of the University of Copenhagen.

In the past, dogs in the Arctic were sled dogs, work animals, hunting and guarding companions, but also food. Nowadays sled dogs are adapted to the use of different sled types, depending on whether they are used for work, for racing or for tourist purposes. Picture: Michael Wenger

The team studied the genetic information of dogs from Siberia and Eurasia from different eras. Thus they were able to show that a cultural and social change that had gone through the Arctic ethnic groups had also changed the demands on the dogs. “The original Arctic dogs were primarily sled dogs,” explains Laurent Frantz. “As people began to keep more reindeer herds, they probably needed dogs with different behaviors that were better suited to herding. The intermingling of Arctic dogs with other populations then possibly led to the creation of lines that were both suited to herding and adapted to harsh climatic conditions.” Another aspect was the fact that dogs must have been a valuable possession. This made them objects of trade in the emerging long-distance trade with other peoples. Earlier studies had already shown that such a trading network must have existed at an early stage. A study published last year on glass beads that had reached Alaska from Europe via Far Eastern Russia showed this clearly.

In the northwestern Siberian region of Reka-Poluj at the foot of the Yamal Peninsula, archaeologists found a burial site where more than 100 dogs had been buried. In addition, the archaeologists also found grave goods, which pointed to the long-distance trade of the ethnic groups living there. Map: Michael Wenger via Google Earth

Evidence of a lively long-distance trade and the importance of dogs for the Arctic ethnic groups was found by archaeologists in the Reka-Poluj region at the foot of the Yamal Peninsula. One site revealed the remains of more than 100 dogs. Some had been ritually buried, others showed traces of consumption. At the same time, objects from different regions such as the Black Sea region and the Middle East were discovered. The genetic analyses of the dogs and also the comparison with other studies showed that the dogs of the region had been crossed over time with breeds from these areas. This created new lines more suitable for the new lifestyle of the peoples of northwestern Siberia, who had become reindeer nomads.

The polar explorers of the early 20th century relied more and more on dogs, like Amundsen on Samoyed relatives. For this purpose, the Siberian dog breeds were the main focus. Because it was thought that they were best suited as work animals. British breeders then tried to “optimize” the animals, so that many of the breeds known today, such as Samoyeds, resulted. Image: Unknown; Wiki Commons

The new breeding lines have had and still have an actual meaning today. Because in the Arctic regions people still rely on the strength and the resistance to arctic conditions and use the dogs as workers, especially as sled dogs. Early polar explorers like Shackleton and Amundsen also relied on these skills during expeditions. At the same time, however, it was thought to “optimize” the animals still and began with breeding programs. This resulted in breeds that are well known today, such as the Samoyed. Now a popular breeding dog, he was once simply a working animal, but has a long lineage of once original working dogs in northwestern Siberia.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to study: Feuerborn et al (2021) Proc NatAc Sci Sep 2021, 118 (39) e2100338118; Modern Siberian dog ancestry was shaped by several thousand years of Eurasian-wide trade and human dispersal; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2100338118

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