In 1912, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team fought more than exhaustion and cold on their famous quest to become the first humans to reach the South Pole. The rations for the arduous dog-sled journey across Antarctica ran low, so Amundsen and his men decided to shoot and eat some of their dogs. The explorer later described the fare as delicious, adding that “it is anything but a real hardship to eat dog flesh.”
Amundsen may have come up with the idea after hearing stories of aboriginal hunters in Greenland eating their sled dogs in winter. But just how long have humans regarded Fido as food? In a paper published online in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, a team headed by geneticist Raul Tito of the University of Oklahoma reports finding a dog bone in 9,260-year-old naturally preserved human feces. According to team member Samuel Belknap III, a graduate student at the University of Maine at Orono, it is the earliest incontrovertible evidence for domesticated dogs in the New World. “And I feel fairly confident that it’s the oldest direct evidence of human consumption of dog in the world,” notes Belknap.
Belknap discovered the bone while identifying the contents of ancient human feces excavated from a lower layer at a rock shelter known as Hinds Cave in Texas. The ancient fecal material, or coprolite, was littered with seared prickly pear seeds — a food prepared and cooked by humans — and flecked with small bones from fish, birds and rodents. Belknap was initially surprised to find the bone of a larger mammal. Further analysis suggested that it was part of a dog’s skull — the occipital condyle, a knoblike structure on the back of the head, near the first vertebra.
The team determined the age of the coprolite by radiocarbon dating one of the prickly pear seeds inside. But that early date, says Belknap, necessitated a more definitive identification of the bone. Research teams elsewhere had advanced claims for other New World dogs in this time range, but critics had frequently disputed the findings.
To conclusively identify the Hinds Cave bone, the Oklahoma researchers took two small samples of it for DNA testing and compared it to sequences from ancient dogs, as well as to sequences from modern dogs, wolves and coyotes. The Hinds Cave bone fell into a group belonging solely to modern and ancient dogs.
Jennifer Leonard, a geneticist at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, who was not involved in the project, is not terribly surprised that ancient humans saw man’s best friend as more than a companion or hunting assistant. “Most Americans living in cities and suburbs don’t see their dogs as food, but there are lots of historical records of Native Americans eating dogs,” she says.
This article was produced by ScienceNOW, the daily online news service of the journal Science, and can be read online at www.sciencemag.org.