Ancestry of Arctic sled dogs

Updated: 6 Mar. 2019

For the last 15,000 years, humans and dogs traveled, hunted, and lived together. Dogs were brought to North America from Asian regions by the first colonizers. Much later, when Europeans colonized the Americas, European domestic dogs started breeding with the indigenous dogs leading to a mix of their genetic signatures. But are all modern dogs so mixed that none of the heritage from indigenous dogs persisted? In more remote regions of North America – the Arctic – this is not the case.

In the Arctic, dogs have been important companions and workers, playing central roles in travelling in the ice and snow. Sled dogs – or qimmiq in the native language Inuktitut – are still an important component of the Inuit culture, and are even the symbol of Nunavut, the only territory fully governed by Inuit.

Researchers from the United States compared mitochondrial DNA from modern dogs with dog remains from archeological excavations in the Alaskan Arctic and Greenland. When comparing with worldwide information on the most common domestic dog haplotypes – a set of DNA variations that tend to be inherited together – they found that the haplotype A31, only seen in Arctic dogs, was common to both the archaeological and modern dogs from Greenland and to some extent Alaska. This haplotype, along with other unique less frequent ones, indicate an indigenous matrilineal ancestry of modern dogs in the North, which seems to be relatively unchanged for at least the past 700 years!

Location of archeological excavations in Alaska (Cape Espenberg) and Greenland (Qaqaitsut and Etah), indicated by the arrows.

This type of information can be used to track human migratory routes in time and space, as humans and dogs traveled together. Like Greenland, DNA of dogs in regions such as East Asia, parts of Africa, Island Southeast Asia, Australia and Middle East, still preserves information about Neolithic migrations.


Sources: Brown SK, Darwent CM, Sacks BN (2013) Ancient DNA evidence for genetic continuity in arctic dogs. J Archaeol Sci 40:1279–1288. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.09.010.

Author: Sara Pedro


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