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Sledding dogs are far older than previously thought, enabling man to hunt hibernating polar bears

By 0 and 0 and 0
26 June 2020


The genome of the Zhokhov dog is directly related to the iconic modern-day Siberian Husky, the Alaskan Malamute and Greenlandic sledge dog. Picture: Guide to Greenland

The training of these dogs happened thousands of years earlier than had been appreciated, according to new research published in Science on Friday.

DNA from dog bones from Zhokhov Island indicates that domesticated sled dogs were used by man in the Siberian Arctic at least 9,500 years ago, some 6,500 to 7,500 years earlier than many scientists had believed. 

The genome of the Zhokhov dog is directly related to the iconic modern-day Siberian Husky, the Alaskan Malamute and Greenlandic sledge dog, but can also be traced back to Siberian wolves from 33,000 years ago.

Lower jaw

The sample for DNA analysis was taked from a tooth on this lower jaw. Picture: Elena Pavlova & Pavel Ivanov

‘We were able to conclude that modern sledge dogs and the Zhokhov dog share a common origin in Arctic Siberia more than 9,500 years ago. Until now, we have thought that sledge dogs were only about 3,000 to 2,000 years old’, said lead author Mikkel Sinding, of the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen in Denmark. 

The Zhokhov island Mesolithic site had been excavated since 1989 to 2005 by the team headed by Dr Vladimir Pitulko, of the Institute for the History of Material Culture, St Petersburg, and one of the key authors of the article.


The current study also investigated the use of dogs for polar bear hunting, based on the investigations on remote Zhokhov island by Russian scientist, Dr Vladimir Pitulko. Sleeping female polar bears were a key target, it is claimed. 

Dr Pitulko with his fellow researcher paleozoologist Dr Aleksey Kasparov have separately suggested ancient people used hunting dogs 12-13,000 years ago, and breeding most likely started 15,000 years ago. The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports in 2017.

GV of Zhokhov island

Excavations site

The Zhokhov island Mesolithic site had been excavated since 1989 to 2005 by the team headed by Dr Vladimir Pitulko. Pictures: Elena Pavlova, Vladimir Pitulko

‘These people were highly-skilled Arctic travellers – they ranged over vast distances to obtain vital resources, intercepting both the large caribou herds that migrated widely over the frozen tundra, but also targeting female polar bears as they hibernated in winter dens,’ said another co-author, Peter Jordan, director of the Arctic Centre at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. 

‘The most valuable parts of these animals were transported back to this year-round base camp to build up the food supply for the rest of the group.

‘We also know that they were making their hunting tools from obsidian – a kind of rare volcanic glass.

Dog skull

Dog skull in situ. Picture: Vladimir Pitulko 

Recent research by our Russian colleagues has shown that this material was sourced from around 1,500 km away, so they were either travelling these enormous distances themselves, or obtaining it via long-distance exchange networks with other mobile hunting groups.’

Vladimir Pitulko with co-authors Dr Elena Pavlova and Dr Aleksey Kasparov earlier described in a 2015 study how hibernating polar bears, a key food source, were hunted. 

By using hunting dogs and targeting dens this gave 'a stable result and was completely predictable. 

Sledge runner

Broken sledge runner in situ. Picture: Vladimir Pitulko

‘The search for the dens was not complicated, especially with the dogs. 

‘The main hunting season for polar bears was from December to March. 

‘The tactics of the hunt was seemingly the following: in early spring time the entrance to the den was covered with snow, it frightened the bear and made it search the way out through the den's roof, where there was a breathing hole. 

‘In winter time the breathing hole could be covered with the snow, which was an ideal provoking action.

'It is very convenient to hit the bear when there appears the head and the neck on the surface. 

Polar bear skulls with injuries traces

'The tactics of such hunting seem to be confirmed by traces of hunting weapons left on the bones of a polar bear by weapons of the inhabitants of the Zhokhov site.' Picture: Vladimir Pitulko

'The tactics of such hunting seem to be confirmed by traces of hunting weapons left on the bones of a polar bear by weapons of the inhabitants of the Zhokhov site…. 

‘Such traces are found almost exclusively on bear skulls, there is only one rib with a trace of a dangerous wound.

‘In all cases where it is possible to establish, they tried to inflict the lesion into the brain capsule from the back – from the left or right side, directing the blow either directly into the brain capsule, into the eye, neck, and back of the head, while the latter, most likely are misses.

Reconstruction of bear hunt

Reconstruction of polar bear hunt. Picture: A.O. Mashezerskaya

‘They butchered dead animals at the place of prey. 

‘Newborn cubs became  permitted prey for dogs participating in the hunt, and cubs of the second year of life, having a mass of 70–140 kilograms, already represented a certain ‘bonus’, increasing the volume of one-time prey.

‘The bones of polar bears have a significantly greater number of dog bites than the bones of a reindeer. 

Polar bar on Zhokhov Island

Polar bear spotted on Zhokhov Island in 2011. Picture: Peter Sobolev

‘This circumstance is easily explained by two important reasons: firstly, winter conditions suggest the most complete use of food resources; secondly, the use of meat and bones of bears for feeding dogs is essential - they are trained to this beast, therefore, the dog will not only not be afraid of him, but will also know that this beast can be defeated and eaten - a simple hunting training, which has not changed much over the past thousand years.'

The ancient Zhokhov hunters kept a large number of dogs, some seen as similar to modern Siberian Huskies.

The sled animals along with man become adapted to the extreme Arctic cold. 

Greenland sledge dog

Greenland Sled Dog. Picture: Carsten Egevang / Qimmeq

'We can also see that they have adaptations that are probably linked to improved oxygen uptake, which makes sense in relation to long-distance sledding,’ said Dr Sinding. 

‘This emphasises that sledge dogs and Arctic people have worked and adapted together for more than 9,500 years.’

He said: ’We extracted ancient DNA from a 9,500-year-old dog from the Siberian island of Zhokhov, which the dog is named after. 

‘Based on that DNA we have sequenced the oldest dog genome ever, that is, mapped the entire dog genome, and the results show an extremely early differentiation of dog breeds and diversity.’

He explained that ‘modern sledge dogs have most of their genomes in common with Zhokhov. So, they are more closely related to this ancient dog than to other dogs and wolves. 


Ancient obsidian exchange route. Picture: Elena Pavlova

‘But not just that – we can see traces of crossbreeding with wolves such as the 33,000-year-old Siberian wolf – but not with modern wolves. 

‘It further emphasises that the origin of the modern sledge dog goes back much further than we had ever thought.’

Dr Jordan also warned: “Arctic Archaeologists now face a massive problem – global warming. 

‘The Arctic is heating up much more quickly than any other part of the planet, and this means that the thousands of unique sites like Zhokov are disappearing before our eyes due to a combination of melting ice and coastal erosion. 

Vladimir Pitulko

Vladimir Pitulko pictured during the excavations at the Zhokhov island. Picture: Vladimir Pitulko

‘This loss of fragile Arctic heritage is actually accelerating – thousands of sites are vanishing before we can even locate them, let alone do proper sampling and excavation.’

Zhokhov island is in the De Long group of the New Siberian Islands in the Arctic Ocean.

The research was partly supported by the Russian Science Foundation (project 16-18-10265P-2019-RNF).

Comments (2)

I suggest that sled dog teams may actually have been involved in transporting obsidian through this trade route.
Thomas E. Lehman, Augusta GA/United States
20/04/2021 22:37
Very very interesting article...Husky doen't have developed LAOM and RAOL muscles, .....like Wolf..
Jocelyne, FRANCE
26/06/2020 16:48

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