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Map of butchery and impact marks across dog skeletons. (Thomas, A.E. et al. American Antiquity)

SCIENCE & TECH: Early English Settlers in North America Consumed Indigenous Dogs for Survival

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The first English settlers in North America, struggling to survive during the harsh early years of colonization, resorted to consuming indigenous dogs. Recent archaeological discoveries in Jamestown, Virginia—the site of the first permanent English settlement—reveal that the settlers ate dogs during a period known as the “Starving Time” (1609-1610 AD). This period was marked by extreme food shortages, harsh winters, and conflicts with Native American tribes.

Researchers analyzed genetic material from dog remains found in Jamestown, identifying six dogs of indigenous ancestry that were consumed by the settlers, The Independent reports. The evidence includes butcher marks and bone modifications consistent with human consumption, highlighting the desperate measures taken by the colonists to endure the severe conditions.

Map of butchery and impact marks across dog skeletons. (Thomas, A.E. et al. American Antiquity)

Archaeological Findings and Genetic Analysis

Archaeologists excavated 181 canine bones in Jamestown, representing at least 16 dogs from the early settlement period (1607-1617 AD). The genetic analysis showed these dogs shared ancestry with Native American breeds like Hopewellian and Mississippian dogs from eastern North America. The study, which has been published in American Antiquity, sheds light on the complex interactions between European colonists and indigenous communities.

The study suggests that early colonists depended heavily on local resources and the indigenous population for survival. The consumption of dogs, typically a last resort during periods of extreme starvation, indicates the dire situation faced by the settlers. Approximately two-thirds of the original settlers died within the first year, succumbing to disease, malnutrition, and violence.

The Starving Time and its Impact

The winter of 1609-1610, known as the Starving Time, was particularly brutal. The settlers faced numerous challenges, including violence with neighboring tribes, drought, poor harvests, lack of supplies, and severe food shortages. These conditions nearly led to the abandonment of the colony in the spring of 1610.

During this time, the settlers’ reliance on indigenous dogs became evident. The butchered dog remains unearthed by archaeologists provide undeniable proof of their consumption during this period. The study underscores the importance of understanding these survival strategies to comprehend the broader social dynamics and interactions between the colonizers and indigenous populations.

A Daily Mail article reports how the settlers were known to have turned to cannibalism in order to survive, quoting early Jamestown colony leader George Percy  who wrote, they dug up ‘dead corpses out of graves and to eat them, and some have licked up the blood which has fallen from their weak fellows.’

A study in 2012 had found the remains of a 14-year-old girl to have evidence of ‘dismemberment of the body and removing of tissues for consumption’, according to Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley.

Colonial Interactions and Indigenous Dogs

The role of dogs in colonial expansion is well-documented. European explorers and settlers often brought dogs with them on their voyages to the New World. These dogs served various purposes, including guarding camps, aiding in hunting, providing companionship, and even being used as weapons against indigenous populations.

The Independent explains how Richard Hakluyt, a prominent advocate for English colonization in the 16th century, emphasized the importance of dogs in the Americas. He noted the need for different breeds, such as greyhounds for hunting deer and mastiffs for protecting settlements. However, the interaction between European and indigenous dogs was complex and often led to cultural tensions.

The loss of indigenous dogs due to European colonization is an underexplored aspect of the colonial impact on Native American societies. Understanding how and when indigenous dogs were replaced by European breeds can provide insights into the ecological and cultural changes brought about by colonization.

Top image: Pilgrims Going to Church, oil on canvas painting by George Henry Boughton, 1867.               Source: New-York Historical Society/Public Domain

By Gary Manners





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