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Siberian dogs were shaped by long-distance trade routes

Dogs have been important to indigenous people in Arctic Siberia for thousands of years. In addition to being a source of food, Siberian dogs have been used to pull sleds, herd reindeer and hunt.

Although Arctic dogs evolved in isolation up until about 7,000 years ago, they were subsequently bred with dogs imported from other regions and this has given rise the modern breeds of Siberian dogs, such as the samoyed.

In a recent research project, the genomes of 49 dogs from sites in Siberia and Eurasia were analyzed and compared by a team of international scientists led by paleogeneticist Laurent Frantz from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. The samples dated from between 60 and 11,000 years ago. 

In particular, four of the dogs originated from an archaeological site known as Ust’-Polui, on the Yamal Peninsula in northwestern Siberia. Russian and Canadian archeologists had previously uncovered the remains of more than 100 dogs at this site, dating back to about 2,000 years.

The results of the DNA analysis showed evidence that dogs were imported from Eurasia into Arctic Siberia by at least 2,000 years ago. 

“Whereas Arctic dogs evolved in isolation prior to at least 7,000 years ago, genomic DNA isolated from Siberian dogs dated to between the Iron Age and medieval times shows that there were increasing portions of genetic material derived from dogs from the Eurasian steppes, as well as Europe,” said study lead author Dr. Tatiana Feuerborn of the University of Copenhagen.

Archaeological finds from the site at Ust’-Polui had shown that people in the region were already using long-range trade routes for commercial purposes 2,000 years ago. Some of the artefacts discovered there included glass beads and metal objects that could only have been manufactured in far afield areas such as the steppe zone, the Black Sea region or the Near East. The earliest evidence of reindeer domestication has also been found at this important site. 

It is clear from the genetic evidence that dogs were also traded during this time. The percentage of non-Siberian ancestry among dogs on the Yamal peninsula increased significantly during this time, indicating the early importation of dogs from distant locations.

“Dogs were potentially valuable possessions, and they were bought and sold,” said Frantz. “The first dogs domesticated in the Arctic served primarily as sledding dogs, but when Siberian populations turned to pastoralism, they may well have required dogs that had other useful behavioral traits, which were better suited for reindeer herding.” 

“The mixing of Arctic dogs with other populations potentially led to the establishment of dog lineages that were both suited to herding and also adapted to the harsh climatic conditions.”

Interestingly, human genomes in Arctic Siberia remained very stable over this stretch of time, with little indication of genetic input from non-Arctic populations.

The cross-breeding and artificial selection of Arctic dogs for desirable traits eventually led to the development of modern canine breeds such as the samoyed. “A large fraction of the samoyed genome can be traced back to ancestral Arctic bloodlines, but it also shows far more Western influence than the husky, for instance,” said Frantz.

Because samoyed bloodlines tend to be kept pure and hybridization with other breeds is rare, these dogs have remained largely unchanged since the Middle Ages.  This is in contrast with most other modern dogs of the 19th and 20th centuries, that have arisen from the specific mixing of breeds to produce dogs that have useful characteristics. 

The results of this study are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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