- Researchers from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History recently studied and analyzed a 160-year-old pelt of an extinct woolly dog, part of a breed that Indigenous Coast Salish communities cared for for thousands of years.
- For the first time, the study sequenced the woolly dog’s genomes to analyze the species’ ancestry and genetics and the factors contributing to its sudden disappearance at the end of the 19th century.
- Based on the genetic data, they estimated that woolly dogs biologically evolved from other breeds about 5,000 years ago.
- Researchers say numerous socio-cultural factors are likely responsible for the species’ disappearance. Chief among them were the impacts of European colonization.
If any dog has held much of a cultural, economic, and spiritual significance to the Indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest Coast, it was the Coast Salish woolly dog. In British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, their fluffy fleece and thick undercoats were sheared like sheep by high-status women and spun together to weave colorful blankets and textiles.
In a new study, a team of researchers from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History partnered with Coast Salish Indigenous communities to explore the breed’s origins and sudden disappearance. The researchers analyzed the 160-year-old pelt of an extinct woolly dog named Mutton, the last known of its breed. The fluffy canine died in 1859 under the care of naturalist and ethnographer George Gibbs. The pelt has since resided in the museum, and its existence was little known until it was rediscovered in the early 2000s.
After studying the genome in the pelt, researchers say numerous sociocultural factors are likely responsible for the species’ disappearance. Chief among them were the impacts of European colonization.
Although Mutton’s genetics could tell little about what caused this dog’s death, this is the first time the genome of a woolly dog has been sequenced, said Audrey Lin, corresponding author and evolutionary molecular biologist from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Based on the genetic data, they estimated that woolly dogs biologically evolved from other breeds about 5,000 years ago. The team found out that nearly 85% of Mutton’s ancestry was linked to precolonial dogs before the 1500s.
Pulling back the layers of time and uncovering the dog’s ancient ancestry surprised researchers. Although Mutton lived decades after the introduction of European dog breeds during colonization in the 18th century, they saw less signs of interbreeding with the settlers’ dogs than expected. According to the researchers, Mutton’s ancestry showed how Salish communities tried to carefully maintain woolly dogs’ unique genetic makeup until they were extinct.
Coast Salish communities, which cared for the breed and restricted its interbreeding with others for thousands of years until its disappearance at the end of the 19th century, were key to finding answers, say the authors.
“Without the oral histories and the traditional knowledge of the Coast Salish communities, we would have an incomplete understanding of the importance of woolly dogs, why they were kept as a special breed, and the reasons for their disappearance,” says Audrey Lin, corresponding author and evolutionary molecular biologist from Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The researchers say woolly dogs were most likely threatened after the Coast Salish tribal communities faced a list of impacts, including new diseases, displacement, and colonial policies that led to cultural genocide.
“Because of the devastating impacts of colonialism, woolly dogs were pretty much extinct by the end of the 19th century,” says Lin. “In many communities, up to 90% of the Indigenous peoples had died of epidemics like smallpox — it would be so difficult to take care of the woolly dogs if you were trying to keep your family alive.”
Across the North West Pacific coasts in British Columbia, Coast Salish communities were restricted in maintaining the traditional breeding of woolly dogs and harvesting their wools after Europeans arrived with colonial policies to assimilate Indigenous communities. They were imposed fines or imprisoned if they kept the dog or their traditional practices alive.
This criminalization of Indigenous cultural practices directly impacted the communities, especially the women who cared for woolly dogs, their weaving skills and the transference of cultural knowledge, the authors told Mongabay.
With the massive influx of miners during the 1858 Fraser River Gold Rush, the conflicts and assimilation policies between them and the Indigenous local populations heightened.
Shedding light on mysteries
With the disappearance of the species, many narratives revolved around the reasons behind its extinction. One held that woolly dogs’ fur-woven blankets went out of fashion and could not replace cheap, machine-woven blankets. However, the researchers point out factors that show this could not be the case given the significance and use of fur-woven blankets in cultural and spiritual ceremonies within Coast Salish communities.
“Provided that the manufacture of woven blankets in the traditional ways was very important and sacred, the Coast Salish communities would never have willingly given up these dogs and the traditional ways of creating the blankets and regalia,” Lin told Mongabay.
To analyze what set woolly dogs apart from other dog breeds, the researchers sequenced the woolly dog genome and compared it with the genomes of ancient and modern dog breeds. They also identified certain chemical signatures, like isotopes in the pelt, to determine Mutton’s diet and created a life-like reconstruction of its appearance in the 1850s. This is the first in-depth reconstruction of a Coast Salish woolly dog in nearly three decades.
“There are gene variants linked to skin, hair follicle development, etc. that are found only in Mutton and in no other dog or canid. This includes a gene variant that is associated with congenital skin conditions and woolly hair in humans,” Lin says. “All this demonstrates that the dog breed was very carefully maintained by the Coast Salish community for thousands of years.”
After tracing their history, researchers say domestic dogs were first brought into North America from Eurasia. From the existing population of dogs, the ancestors of the Coast Salish selectively bred the dogs into the woolly dog. Since the community people harvested the dog’s wool and made textiles from them interwoven with goat hair, it was likely they fed the dogs a special diet to maintain the quality of their wool, knowing what could impact it.
“Most likely, the intermixing with European settler-introduced dogs would have affected the quality of the dog wool. That was why they were so strictly maintained and reproductively isolated from other dogs — to maintain the quality of the wool,” Lin tells Mongabay.
Woolly dogs were not only an emblem of wealth and status for Coast Salish women. Dana Lepofsky, a professor from the Department of Archaeology at Simon Fraser University, who was not involved in the study, says a human-animal bond existed in communities other than among the northern Coast Salish people.
“The inclusion of dogs in burials in Tla’amin territory and elsewhere speaks to this deep bond,” she told Mongabay. “Owners gave them special foods, special places to sleep, and fully recognized their worth.”
Despite these settler-influenced changes, the tradition of weaving has remained strong to this day among the Coast Salish, and with that, an understanding of its deep importance to Coast Salish heritage, said Lepofsky.
Banner image: Forensic reconstruction of a woolly dog based on Mutton’s pelt measurements and archaeological remains. Image courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Zack Romo about Indigenous rights and the future of biodiversity conservation. Listen here:
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