he hunter-gatherers of Zhokhov Island were a hardy folk. Nine thousand years ago, they survived frigid year-round temperatures in animal-skin tents some 500 kilometers north of what is now the Russian mainland, and they were the only people ever known to hunt large numbers of polar bears without firearms. Now it appears these ancient Arctic dwellers did something even more remarkable: They may have been among the first humans to breed dogs for a particular purpose. An analysis of canine bones from Zhokhov suggests the dogs there were bred to pull sleds, making this the first evidence—by thousands of years—for dog breeding in the archaeological record.
“It’s pretty convincing and very exciting,” says Melinda Zeder, an archaezoologist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The finding may help explain why people domesticated dogs in the first place: to put them to work. “It fills in a missing piece of the puzzle of early human-dog relationships, and even domestication itself,” adds Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
Story: David Grimm, Science | Photo: Bulychov, Ivan Dmitriyevich (fl.1856)/Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, U.K./Bridgeman Images