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Famine Drove Jamestown Settlers to Eat Native Dogs, DNA Reveals

Sci & spaceFamine Drove Jamestown Settlers to Eat Native Dogs, DNA Reveals

This article is part of our Pets special section on scientists’ growing interest in our animal companions.

For 30 years, archaeologists have been digging at Jamestown, the first permanent British settlement in America. The trumpets, children’s shoes, pistols and millions of other unearthed objects have provided fresh clues to what life was like at the fort that settlers built in 1607 on the James River in Virginia.

Now, some of the most intriguing clues are coming from bones — not of the people who lived in Jamestown, but of the dogs.

The earliest written records of European colonists make only fleeting references to dogs. Spanish and British explorers brought mastiffs, bloodhounds and water spaniels to the New World, though probably not as pets. Some European dogs helped hunt down deer and birds, while others were sent into battle: When Powhatan forces attacked Jamestown, English soldiers retaliated by setting dogs loose on Powhatan villages.

The records also indicate that dogs sometimes served as food. When the Powhatan people laid siege to the settlement in 1609, the British residents suffered through a winter that came to be known as “the Starving Time.” The people trapped inside Jamestown resorted to eating dogs.

“Having fed upon horses and other beasts as long as they lasted, we were glad to make shift with vermin, as dogs, cats and mice,” George Percy, the president of the Jamestown council, wrote in 1622.

In the early 2000s, archaeologists confirmed those reports with the discovery of the bones of at least 16 dogs at Jamestown. The dogs had been buried in wells, cellars and a bakery. The archaeologists spotted cuts on the bones where knives had been used to pare off the muscles. “Those butchering marks on the dog bones were clear to us right away,” said Leah Stricker, a curator at Jamestown Rediscovery, the archaeological project digging up artifacts at the settlement.

After a preliminary inspection, the dog bones were stored in Jamestown’s museum. In 2019, Ariane Thomas, then a graduate student at the University of Iowa, contacted the museum. She wanted to search the bones for DNA.

After four centuries buried in the Jamestown ground, the dog remains had lost most of their genetic material. Still, Dr. Thomas managed to get a sizable amount of DNA from six bones. It came from structures inside of cells known as mitochondria, which are inherited only from mothers. The mitochondrial DNA, Dr. Thomas hoped, would link the maternal ancestry of the dogs to a particular breed.

The Jamestown researchers assumed that the dogs would belong to breeds from England. “And it took a wild turn,” said Michael Lavin, a conservator at Jamestown Rediscovery.

The DNA revealed that the dogs were not European, but rather Native American breeds.

When the ancestors of Native Americans traveled from Siberia into the Americas, they brought dogs with them. Archaeologists have found dog remains in Canada dating back over 13,000 years. Native Americans probably used early breeds for hunting and hauling goods. One tribe in the Pacific Northwest even raised dogs with woolly hair that they harvested for textiles. Archaeologists have also found dog remains in burial sites, including one in Virginia, which might reflect the spiritual importance they had to people.

Some early American dog remains have yielded DNA. Those breeds have largely disappeared, and today there is no sign of their legacy in living dogs in North America. But it is also not clear when — or how — the ancient American dogs disappeared. “I wanted to pinpoint that time frame,” Dr. Thomas said.

Dr. Thomas’s analysis revealed that Native American dog breeds were living inside the heavily fortified walls of Jamestown. And while some of the animals died during the Starving Time, Dr. Thomas and her colleagues found that other dogs lived either before or after the famine, over a period from 1607 to 1617.

For Dr. Thomas, the discovery suggests two possibilities. One is that the dogs belonged to Powhatan women who married English men and moved inside the settlement. The same building where some dog bones were discovered also contained Powhatan pipes, bone needles and beads.

Alternatively, the Native dogs may have roamed freely in and out of the settlement, she said. While the high fortress walls of Jamestown might have been intended to keep Powhatan forces out, they may not have been much of a barrier to dogs.

Dr. Thomas speculated that the crop failures and wars with the surrounding Powhatan people may have meant that the residents of Jamestown didn’t have time to keep some dogs inside the settlement and keep other dogs out.

“It seems like there were a lot of other priorities,” Dr. Thomas said. “And so, inevitably, dogs were low on the priority list.”

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