The Archaeologist and the Wolf

There’s been a lot of talk around our dinner table lately about a fascinating new book entitled The Philosopher and the Wolf.    Half autobiography, half philosophical meditation, the book explores the intense relationship that University of Miami philosopher Mark Rowlands had with a wolf that he naively adopted as a cub.  As Rowlands recounts it, Brenin the wolf was a superb companion, but as a true pack animal he could not tolerate solitude.

Indeed,  Rowlands could not leave his wolf alone anywhere.  When once he left Brenin in his jeep during a ferry trip,  the frustrated animal began to literally eat his way through the vehicle,   shredding seats and seat belts and gnawing away the roof.  There wasn’t much left of the interior when Brenin was done. So Rowlands learned to take his  wolf with him everywhere,  even into the classroom.

I thought of this anecdote today as I was read an intriguing  news article about the work of archaeologist Jeff Blick.   Blick, who teaches at Georgia College & State University, is an expert on prehistoric dogs.  He has spent much of the past two decades analyzing the skeletons of 112 dogs that he and his colleagues excavated from the Weyanoke site in Virginia.  It is, by all reports,  the largest collection of prehistoric dog skeletons in North America.

Blick, who much prefers cats to dogs in his private life, has learned an awful lot about these 1000-year-old canines.  The dogs were about the size of a modern Shetland sheep dog,  and while some were sacrificed,  at least one was buried at the feet of its owner.   They dined on fish, turkey, and turtle meat,  and they may well have been barkless.  Many of the early Europeans in the Americas commented on the fact that the native dogs didn’t let out barks;  instead they tended to howl like their wolf ancestors.   (And for those of you who have never heard what a wolf sounds like,  please click here.)

Blick is interested in the question of where and how dogs were first domesticated. Some research suggests that eastern Asians were the first to domesticate wolves and that their faithful pets followed them on a long cold trek across Beringia to the New World.  Other research points to an origin in northern Africa.  Blick himself now hypotheses that people in North America and other parts of the world independently domesticated dogs and he is now trying to gather ancient canine DNA to test the idea.

All this of course begs the biggest question of all in my mind.  Why did humans first tame wolves and turn them into dogs?  I’m beginning to think that wolves themselves had at least a small say in the matter.  They didn’t want to be alone.


  1. Dan Hilborn

    Totally cool!
    And since you mention canines …

    Simon Fraser’s journal says domesticated dogs were simply part of the landscape during his perilous 1808 journey through British Columbia.

    However, he provides no description of these canines, other than the fact that they became a somewhat meagre repast during the previous winter’s famine. (And any howling heard from outside of camp was typically ascribed to ‘wolves’, not dogs.)

    By contrast, Capt. George Vancouver gives a fair description of the numerous dogs he found on his earlier journeys up the West Coast. He writes that these canines “much resembled those of Pomerania,” but were slightly larger with a coarse fur that was woven – with other furs – into wool.

    And Freeman Tovell’s new book At The Far Reaches Of Empire, includes a glowing assessment from Spanish naval minister Julián de Arriaga y Rivero on the Nootka Native’s ability to weave that wool.

    “If these cloaks are woven by Indians of the country,” Arriaga wrote to Viceroy Antonio Bucareli, “that nation is more cultivated and civilized than all the others discovered up to now in America.”

    Neat, eh?

    But, (as always) a question:

    Has anyone found the descendants of these west coast canines, and do those species survive today?

  2. Hi Dan:

    I’ve read a little about these West Coast dogs, too. Let me see if I can find someone to answer your questions. Meanwhile, if anyone else wants to pitch in…

  3. Hi Dan and Heather,

    My colleague Susan Crockford is very knowledgeable about the Coast Salish wool dog and wrote a book on their osteology. I think the best/simplest course is to check out this blog post:
    Where there is a rendering of a wool dog and a nice interview with Susan.

  4. Oh, and to answer your question, Susan estimates about 1850 for the dying out of the wool dog breed — they needed to be kept reproductively isolated from other dogs and that was a lot of work, especially after sheep wool blankets were arriving from Europe in numbers.

    You might also want to look at this Paul Kane painting from about 1850 which shows a wool dog inside a house on Vancouver Island, with a woman weaving:

  5. Marvellous! Thanks so much, Quentin, for all this great info. I personally had no idea that people on the Northwest Coast bred two different types of dogs.

  6. Dan Hilborn

    Truly incredible.

    I will say, the adorable little wool dog in Paul Kane’s painting looks more like a Samoyed pup than a Pomeranian to me, but … that’s just my bias.

    Thanks yet again, Heather and Quentin.

  7. Dan — yeah that Paul Kane dog actually looks suspiciously like a sheep from the neck up.

    Susan’s reconstruction is probably quite reliable — if I recall she worked closely with an off-duty police forensic reconstruction artist who thought it would be a fun little project. Her reconstruction is much more like a pomeranian than that Paul Kane thing — but remember Paul Kane travelled widely, made a huge number of sketches, and then much later would assemble a composite painting that might or might not reflect any one little slice of life. They were not painted from life in a holistic sense.

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