Searching for the origin of the dog sled | Polarjournal
Emma Vitale learns from Julia Lings how to drive a dog team on a traditionally built sled. Screenshot: Emma Vitale / Arctic Hub

The mystery of the arrival of dog sleds in Greenland is set to be solved by Emma Vitale who, in a recently published study, has defined a methodology to improve the interpretation of items found during archaeological digs linked to this mode of transport.

Thousands of years ago, human beings likely crossed the Bering Strait during the late Pleistocene period, which ended 11,000 years ago. A second wave of migration across the Bering launched a pre-Inuit cultural period 5,000 years ago. Finally, around a thousand years ago, Inuit culture centered around the Arctic. But what about dog sledding?

These cultural waves may have been facilitated by the development of efficient means of moving such as dog-drawn sledges. “We think that the culture of sled dogs spread from Siberia to Alaska, Canada and Greenland,” explains Emma Vitale, a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Greenland. “In Greenland, the oldest evidence of the presence of dogs dates back to the Saqqaq culture, around 4,000 years ago”. However, it is difficult to determine the origin of sledges pulled by packs of dogs.

This sled is very light and only needs four dogs to pull it, otherwise it would be very difficult to stop. Screenshot: Emma Vitale / Arctic Hub

Overall, its appearance and spread remain enigmatic. And to uncover it, archaeologists need to understand how to use the material evidence from archaeological digs based on a methodology valid throughout the Arctic. This is what Emma Vitale and her team outlined at the end of September in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The oldest evidence of a sledge comes from excavations on the island of Zhokhov and has been dated to between 8,480 and 8,175 years ago. Backing up these finds are dog bones, dating back over 9,000 years. But it’s not certain that these were sled dogs. The devices may also have been pulled by humans or reindeer. For archaeologists, however, this is not yet sufficient evidence, as the dogs’ harnesses are still missing. The most obvious evidence is the combination of the remains of the device, the harness and the dogs.

The established universal indicators of the study: a. Trace buckle from Iglulik (1924), b. Dog harness, Inuinnait, Northwest Territories (1922), c. Dog shoes, Inughuit, Cape York, Northern Greenland, Cape York (1905), d. Dog whip from the National Museum of Greenland’s Ethnographical Collection. Illustration: Emma Vitale / National Museum of Denmark / CC-BY-SA.

The authors distinguish two types of sled. A sled with a high railing on each side, more useful for carrying small objects; this was used in Siberia and Alaska and would be more maneuverable on dry land than on the frozen sea. On the other hand, flat sleds without or with posts to stand on were probably more widely used in Canada and Greenland, more useful on flat areas such as ice floes. They are more efficient for carrying heavy loads such as skins and carcasses, or for moving camp.

But there’s nothing like building one yourself and learning to drive it to get the hang of it. Emma Vitale spent six weeks in Sisimiut, Greenland, with Julia Lings, a Greenland musher. “When you analyse pieces of sled, it’s very useful to have built one yourself, because you know details that you wouldn’t have thought of before and essential elements.”

The part is made of fir, a common wood in these latitudes where it is transported by the sea to the beaches. It will be used to build the runners. Screenshot: Emma Vitale / Arctic Hub

Initially, the parts were assembled using sealskin ties. Their builders used bits of driftwood or whale jaws. The harnesses were attached to the runners, or to a through-front piece, depending on the region and model.

Some harnesses held the front of the dog, others the back or the whole animal. These different types of use undoubtedly created different deformations on the skeletons of the packs. These marks alone may also show that they were used to pull sledges.

Finally, if pieces of whip turn up in the archaeological record, this could be reliable evidence of dog sledding. This is an object used exclusively for this activity. The handle is made of bone or wood, 30 centimetres to one metre long. Its strap measures six to seven meters. But other objects are equally revealing, such as harness connectors.

Greenland sled dog: one of the purest breeds in the world, found only in the dog-sledding region of Greenland. The dog Nilak, literally “freshwater ice”, and Emma Vitale were particularly close during the sled test sessions. Screenshot : Emma Vitale / Arctic Hub

Thanks to her method, Emma Vitale was able to revise her knowledge of the history of Arctic sled dogs. “We found that sites in Alaska had artefactual evidence of dog sledding from the Old Bering Sea culture (2,300 to 1,500 years ago),” write the authors.

In Greenland, the origins of the use of sledges remain poorly understood. To go further, Emma Vitale hopes to use an interdisciplinary approach that combines ancient DNA analysis with archaeological studies and ethnographic contextualisation. The aim is to follow the evolution of Arctic cultures through the evolution of the dogs that accompanied them on their epic journey around the Arctic Circle.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to the study : Vitale, E., Rasmussen, J.A., Grønnow, B., Hansen, A.J., Meldgaard, M., Feuerborn, T.R., 2023. An ethnographic framework for identifying dog sledding in the archaeological record. Journal of Archaeological Science 159, 105856.

Link to the article on building sleds on Arctic Hub.

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