Monday, October 20, 2014

Did ancient indigenous Americans breed their dogs to wolves and coyotes?

The Bureau of American Ethnology was established in 1879 by the U.S. government to preserve Native American culture. The 81 volume collection, published beginning 1879, was digitized in 2009.
Anthropologist and ethnographer 
Frances Densmore recording Mountain Chief
Smithsonian Collection

Since my dissertation was in linguistic anthropology (and my passion is dogs), the first thing I did was look up words for dog.  I figured a comparison might tell if dogs were cross-bred with wolves and/or coyotes.  This is what I found out:

The Yuman people lived in what is now Arizona and California (they still do) and traded with Pima and Seri people. The Yuman word for coyote and wolf is the same, and the word for dog has a similar phonetic sound. Maybe they bred their dogs back to both wolves and coyotes.

Dog                                                                Coyote                                                           Wolf

In the Pima language the words for dog are not similar to words for coyote and wolf.  That suggests their breeds (note list below - they had at least four kinds) were distinctly different than wolves and coyotes. (I circled the word guo because it's like the Chinese word for dog which is gou - makes me wonder if you could use words to track dog migration as people crossed into the Americas from Asia.)
Dog                                                                Coyote                                                      Wolf    

Seri people had similar words for dog and wolf, but the word for coyote is very different. Does this mean they bred dogs back to wolves but not coyotes?  Maybe.

Dog                                                                     Coyote                                                         Wolf 

Looking at reports, depending on what dialect was spoken, the words for dog and wolf are similar.  In rare cases, the words for dog and coyote are similar but the word for wolf is different. This could mean that some tribes bred their dogs back to coyotes, not wolves.  And some first person accounts in diaries from the 1700s indicate that this was the case.
Seri family with napping travois dog, circe 1890
BAE #38
Smithsonian Collection
Not science, but a pretty interesting observation.  As we say when we wear our scholar hats, "More study is needed".

You can find all 81 digitized volumes of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian. If you want to read the print versions, you can find them at Haskell Indian Nations University Library, Lawrence, KS., my home town.

1 comment:

  1. I would think the earliest native americans would have had wolf pups as pets and work animals and mixed them with domestic dogs to tame the breed, as well as breed a stronger work dog?