Lost ‘Woolly Dog’ Genetics Boosts Native Science

The “hairy dogs” kept by the Coast Salish people are now extinct, but researchers see their importance written into the genome of the only known pelt.

Full-body forensic reconstruction of a furry dog ​​based on a 160-year-old pelt in the Smithsonian collection as well as archaeological remains. The reconstructed woolly dog ​​stands against a stylized background of a Coast Salish weaving motif from a historic dog-wool blanket. The description of the weaving motif was designed under the advice of the Coast Salish advisory group on the study.

For millennia before European colonization of what is now the Pacific Northwest, small, fluffy, white “furry dogs,” known as sqwemá:y in a language of the Coast Salish people, roaming the coast. The animals were unlike any dog ​​alive today. Their hair was so luxurious that Coast Salish individuals used it to make important practical and ceremonial blankets.

Only one known furry dog ​​pelt exists today. By analyzing its genes, scientists have now shown how different these furry creatures are from the Yorkshire terrier and Newfoundland gallivant dogs of modern neighborhoods. The shaggy dog ​​”is not a dog as we know it,” said Debra qwasen Sparrow, a master weaver of the Musqueam First Nation. “And the DNA proves that.”

Sparrow is a co-author of the new research published on December 14 in the Science who analyzed the fur of a woolly dog ​​named Mutton, now housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC Mutton died in 1859, at a time when the tradition of keeping woolly dogs collapsed in front of the Beach. The forced assimilation and destruction of the Salish people by European diseases. In the early 20th century, the animals disappeared.

For the research part, Sparrow shared memories from his grandfather, who saw some of the end of sqwemá:y as a child. “My grandfather used to joke a little bit and say they looked like our sheep,” Sparrow said. “We’ll keep an eye on them—they stay in the packs; we don’t want them to interact with other wild animals.”

A stoned dog photographed on a black background
The 160-year-old pelt of the woolly dog ​​Mutton in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Source: Brittany M. Hance/Smithsonian

The Coast Salish people often combined the furry undercoat of dogs with mountain goat hair and plant fiber to form the thick yarn that weavers used to make patterned blankets. They used blankets in ceremonies and to stay warm, made the sqwemá:y central part of society. “The relationship with the little dogs is a gift,” Sparrow said.

And the attention that the Coast Salish people paid to these animals was written in Mutton’s genome, said Audrey Lin, a paleogeneticist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and a co-author of the new research. “Dog breeds are inbred to maintain a specific phenotype,” Lin said. “There are signatures of that in his genome, which reinforces what we know culturally—that these dogs were kept by the Coast Salish and cared for for a long time.”

Scientists’ analyzes confirmed that Mutton’s lineage goes back about 4,800 years, Lin said. Although the Mutton itself seems to have a great-grandfather that is a European dog breed, the rest of its genome is different and includes many mutations that affect the skin and hair that help create spinnable fur. “These gene variants, we didn’t see them in the other dogs we looked at,” Lin said. Interestingly, some of these genes cause hair-related diseases or “hair loss” in humans.

The mutton’s distinctive heritage, retained even as Europeans advanced into the Pacific Northwest, is remarkable. “It just shows how destructive colonialism is,” Lin said. “This ancient tradition of keeping woolly dogs for possibly up to 5,000 years was lost within a few generations.”

With sqwemá:y now extinct, the Coast Salish’s relationship with them has become a mere memory. “Settler colonialism affected every human and nonhuman and the relationships between humans and nonhumans,” said Kelsey Dayle John, a social scientist at the University of Arizona, who focuses on Indigenous studies and does not involve new research.

Sparrow hopes to change that relationship, aiming to create the first traditional quilt in more than a century. Without the sqwemá:y, he will find another dog whose hair can spin. He also had to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors to harvest the wool of the mountain goat and strip the stinging nettles, which would be the core of his poison. After spinning the mixture, he paints it with diatomaceous earth, a crushed sedimentary rock made of fossilized algae that repels insects. Sparrow says she also had to build a new loom to weave the final quilt that would incorporate a yarn very different from her usual wool.

“It brought me back to the place where I wanted to be closer to the originals,” Sparrow said of seeing the science dig into the sqwemá:y and their importance to the Coast Salish people. “What I want society to understand is the intelligence behind these women who scientifically place blankets.”

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Image Source : www.scientificamerican.com

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