Indigenous Dogs at Jamestown: Starvation and Survival

Introduction

They say dogs are man’s best friend, but for the desperate colonists of 17th-century Jamestown, these loyal companions may have been dinner. This unsettling reality has come to light through the work of University of Iowa Ph.D. candidate Ariane Thomas, who studied dog bones found at Jamestown. The findings reveal a grim chapter in early American history, where survival instincts overrode societal norms, leading colonists to consume indigenous dogs during a harsh winter.

The Discovery of Dog Bones at Jamestown

Initial Research and Accidental Find

Ariane Thomas was initially investigating the replacement of indigenous dogs by European breeds in North America. Her research took an unexpected turn when she discovered that Jamestown Rediscovery had a collection of colonial dog bones. DNA tests on these remains revealed something extraordinary.

DNA Evidence and Indigenous Links

Out of the six canine remains tested, two yielded DNA that linked them to ancient dog species native to North America. This connection was a significant breakthrough, offering insights into the lives and lineage of these dogs.

Historical Context of Jamestown

The Harsh Winter of 1609-1610

Thomas studied some dog teeth from Jamestown. Source: Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia)

The winter of 1609-1610, known as the “Starving Time,” was particularly brutal for Jamestown colonists. Of the 340-350 settlers, only about 60 survived. Starvation led to desperate measures, including the consumption of taboo foods.

Survival Cannibalism

Historical documents and archaeological evidence indicate that the colonists resorted to eating horses, dogs, cats, rats, and even human corpses to survive. The cut marks on the dog bones suggest they were part of this grim survival strategy.

The Role of Indigenous Dogs

Characteristics of Indigenous Dogs

Unlike European breeds, indigenous dogs resembled wolves or foxes and did not bark, although they were known to howl. They were integral to Native American life, serving as companions, sacrificial animals, and even sources of fur.

Interaction with Colonists

It’s unclear how these dogs came to Jamestown. They might have been gifted or traded by indigenous people or simply traveled with them. Regardless, their presence at Jamestown highlights the interactions between colonists and Native Americans.

Archaeological Insights

Dog Teeth from Jamestown

A 16th-century painting by English colonist John White seems to show a dog living with indigenous people. Source: British Museum

The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, overseen by Michael Lavin, analyzed dog teeth from the site. The cut marks on these teeth confirm they were consumed by starving colonists.

Comparison with Indigenous Settlements

Further DNA testing linked these dogs to a burial site at an indigenous settlement called the Hatch site. This finding reinforces the indigenous origins of the dogs and their unfortunate fate during the Starving Time.

The Broader Implications

Replacement by European Breeds

Following the colonization of North America, indigenous dogs were rapidly replaced by European breeds. This shift reflects broader changes in the landscape and culture due to European influence.

Cultural Significance of Indigenous Dogs

Indigenous dogs held significant cultural value for Native American tribes. Their use ranged from companionship to spiritual practices, making their replacement a notable cultural loss.

Conclusion

The discovery of dog bones at Jamestown, marked by cut marks and DNA evidence, sheds light on the dire circumstances faced by early colonists. These findings not only reveal the harsh realities of survival but also offer a glimpse into the lives of indigenous dogs that once roamed North America. Understanding this history enriches our knowledge of early American life and the profound changes brought by European colonization.

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