History shines light on Inuit sled dogs

U.S. anthropologists and geneticists traced DNA from dogs back 2,000 years and found that Inuit sled dogs had helped the Inuit thrive in the North American Arctic, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), examined the DNA from 921 dogs and wolves who lived during the last 4,500 years. Analysis of the DNA and the locations and time periods in which they were recovered archaeologically shows dogs from Inuit sites beginning around 2,000 years ago were genetically different from dogs already in the region.

Inuit sled dogs have changed little since people migrated to the North American Arctic across the Bering Strait from Siberia with them, according to researchers.

The legacy of these Inuit dogs survives today in Arctic sled dogs, making them one of the last remaining descendant populations of indigenous, pre-European dog lineages in the Americas.

The latest research is the result of nearly a decade’s work by UC Davis researchers in anthropology and veterinary genetics, who analyzed the DNA of hundreds of dogs’ ancient skeletal remains to determine that the Inuit dog had significantly different DNA than other Arctic dogs, including malamutes and huskies.

The study was published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Dogs were viewed by the Inuit as particularly well-suited to long-distance hauling of people and their goods across the Arctic and consuming local resources, such as sea mammals, for food.

The unique group of dogs helped the Inuit conquer the tough terrain of the North American Arctic 2,000 years ago, researchers said. Inuit dogs are the direct ancestors of modern Arctic sled dogs, and although their appearance has continued to change over time, they continue to play an important role in Arctic communities.