Thursday, January 8, 2015

News: Ancient American Dogs

Although even the most conservative archeologists now concede that humans populated the Americas 13,000 or more years ago (with the smart money on "more" and even "way more"), genetic evidence seems to indicate that they did so without dogs, until about 10,000 years ago.

This is based on mitochondrial DNA. Expect refinements and a pushback when someone does a nuclear DNA study. Because that's how it works.

They also found a greater-than-expected amount of genetic diversity in ancient American dogs; the historical "Indian dog" being a recognizable and fairly uniform breed that led researchers to expect a fairly uniform origin. It's a poor scientific study that holds no surprises! (At least in a field like this one, in which the knowledge gaps are so huge.)

As is so often true, this study is limited to North America and ignores Central and South America. Given the distinctive breeds ancient Mexicans produced, and the degree to which focusing on North American human populations distorted our picture of the process of populating the "New World" for so long, I think a study that includes the entire Western Hemisphere cannot be undertaken too soon.

From the point of view of the person wanting to write fiction set in the Pleistocene, the presence or absence of dogs matters a lot. I left dogs out of 11,000 Years Lost, despite a private opinion that Clovis people probably had them, specifically so that I wouldn't have to show them being eaten. Had I included them, the shape of the society would have been significantly altered. Dogs are beasts of burden, food sources, hunting partners, and a major economic factor, which modern Americans have the luxury of considering primarily in the light of their qualities as companions. We can afford to be sentimental about them. Clovis and pre-Clovis people would not have.

Which does not mean they wouldn't have been affected by the cuteness of puppies. But if you want a model of Pleistocene dog/people interaction, you might do well to consider the attitudes of farming families to their livestock, rather than your own feelings about Snoopy and Moon-Moon.

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