PORTLAND, Maine – Researchers have discovered a dog that is 9,400-years-old. Dogs were pets – and meals.
Bone fragments from e earliest confirmed domesticated dog in the Americas was found.
University of Maine graduate student Samuel Belknap III came across the fragment while analyzing a dried-out sample of human waste unearthed in southwest Texas in the 1970s. A carbon-dating test put the age of the bone at 9,400 years, and a DNA analysis confirmed it came from a dog — not a wolf, coyote or fox, Belknap said.
Because it was found deep inside a pile of human excrement and was the characteristic orange-brown color that bone turns when it has passed through the digestive tract, the fragment provides the earliest direct evidence that dogs — besides being used for company, security and hunting — were eaten by humans and may even have been bred as a food source, he said.
Belknap wasn’t researching dogs when he found the bone. Rather, he was looking into the diet and nutrition of the people who lived in the Lower Pecos region of Texas between 1,000 and 10,000 years ago.
“It just so happens this person who lived 9,400 years ago was eating dog,” Belknap said.
Researchers from the University of Maine and the University of Oklahoma’s molecular anthropology laboratories, led by Professor Todd Markowitz, have written a paper on their findings.
In the paper, it is revealed that dogs have played an important role in human culture for thousands of years.
There are archaeological records of dogs going back 31,000 years from a site in Belgium, 26,000 years in the Czech Republic and 15,000 years in Siberia, said Robert Wayne, a professor of evolutionary biology at UCLA and a dog evolution expert. But canine records in the New World aren’t as detailed or go back nearly as far.
Markowitz — who does not own a dog himself, and actually hates dots — said that the research they have done proves that dogs were companions to the humans living back then and also offered them protection. “The humans living at that time used dogs pretty much the way we use them today – as pets. The only difference is that when the dogs got older, they usually ate them. We were lucky that this dog got away.”
Judging by the size of the bone fragment found, Belknap figures the dog weighed about 25 to 30 pounds. He also found what he thinks was a bone from a dog foot, but the fragment was too small to be analyzed.
Other archaeological digs have put dogs in the U.S. dating back 8,000 years or more, but this is the first time it has been scientifically proved that dogs were here that far back, he said.
Archaeologists are debating whether this is the oldest dog ever found. “I’m not sure Belknap found the oldest,” said UCLA’s head of Arachaeology, Cynthia Bowdoin. “And if it is, I’m sure my team will find an even older dog soon. I’m sure of it.”
The earliest dogs in North America are believed to have come with the early settlers across the Bering land bridge from Asia to the Americas 10,000 years ago or earlier, said Wayne, who has not seen Belknap’s research.It doesn’t surprise Belknap that dogs were a source of food for humans.
A lot of people in Central America regularly ate dogs, he said. Across the Great Plains, some Indian tribes ate dogs when food was scarce or for celebrations, he said.
“It was definitely an accepted practice among many populations,” he said.