For generations, scientists and researchers believed the earliest humans in the Americas came about 12,000 years ago. They traveled from Siberia across the now-submerged land under the Bering Sea and into North America. More recently, researchers believed this migration happened more like 16,000 years ago. Now there is evidence the first people came to North America as long as 16,700 years ago, thanks to the remains of an ancient dog.
The bone fragment was found in 1998 when scientists were looking for bear remains in a tunnel-like cave in Alaska. The piece has been in the University of Alaska Museum since it was found. It was only after genetic tests were run on the bone fragment that scientists realized it was from a dog, not a bear, and that we might have been wrong about what we thought we knew of the first people to come to America.
Man’s Best Bud
This femur bone is about 10,200 years old, making its owner the oldest dog known in the Americas, But the pup’s DNA tells an even more remarkable tale.
Researchers have narrowed the domesticating of dogs to Siberia 23,000 years ago. The bone fragment found indicates the dog was a descendent of the earliest known dogs in Siberia. The research team now estimates the two populations (Siberian/Alaskan) split 16,700 years ago based on genetic differences.
Chemical isotopes revealed that this dog ate marine animals, but most dogs aren’t skilled at fishing, and that tells us their human companions fed them fish, seal, and whale scraps that they had successfully hunted.
We don’t know much about the daily life of this Alaskan dog, but researchers have made some reasonable guesses. Robert Losey is an archaeologist who focuses his studies on the human/animal relationship at the University of Alberta. He thinks the dog would have weighed 50-60 pounds and said, “I would expect the dog to have been behaviorally similar to our own dogs, to be well adapted to cold environments, and probably also a participant in hunting, carrying loads, and pulling loads on sleds.”