Dog Meat: Jamestown Colonists Killed and Ate Indigenous Dogs
A new study of dog remains excavated from Jamestown, the first English colony in North America that wasn’t abandoned, presented at the American Association of Biological Anthropologists annual meeting , has added new evidence that the Jamestown colonists ate dog meat. The study has for now been presented only as a poster and is being prepared for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
The researchers studied the remains of dogs excavated in the last 30 years from Jamestown and almost all the dog bones had cut marks on them, showing it is “possible that they were eaten,” co-author Ariane Thomas, a doctoral student of biological anthropology at the University of Iowa, told Live Science in an email. The dog meat consumption is not a startling finding, since there is evidence that the levels of starvation were so acute in Jamestown that the colonists were even resorting to cannibalism, she added.
The 1607 Jamestown settlement in Virginia succeeded, but in the beginning indigenous dog meat was on the menu as the English colonists learned to survive in the New World. A recent study will likely reveal that indigenous dogs didn’t disappear as quickly as we previously believed. Source: Preservation Virginia
Jamestown Colony Winters Led To Dog Meat Consumption
The 1607 Virginia colony of Jamestown was the first English colony that wasn’t abandoned. Previously, they had tried to establish a colony in Roanoke Island , in North Carolina, around 1587, but the attempt ended catastrophically and the colonists vanished.
The Jamestown colony was not immediately successful. The indigenous Americans laid siege to the English fort in 1609, attempting to starve the settlers out of Virginia. The tribes under Chief Powhatan’s rule stopped bartering food with the English and attacked those who emerged from the fort to trade and hunt .
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In desperation, the colonists were rapidly reduced to eating their horses, cats and dogs and then mice, rats, shoe leather, and finally even each other. Of the colony’s 500 original inhabitants, only 97 survived the winter of 1609-10, known as the Starving Time. And dog meat, once their original dogs were gone, meant trading for and killing the indigenous canines of the Native Americans living nearby.
The remains of six dogs from between 1609 and 1619 showed evidence of cuts marks, which is just one piece of evidence for dog meat on the colonists’ menu in the early years of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. ( Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation )
Dog Meat Was on the Menu Says New Mitochondrial Study
The new study took DNA samples from the remains of six dogs unearthed from Jamestown in the last 30 years. These dogs lived in the colony between 1609 and 1619. Thomas told Live Science that only two of them “had enough sequence fragments to assemble a near-complete mitochondrial genome,” DNA that is passed from mother to offspring via the mitochondria in cells, that is.
Tests showed the dogs’ maternal lineage was closely associated with the A1b haplotype, which is a type that was present in ancient indigenous dog lineages from North America. Moreover, these ancient dog lineages are those descended from the earliest dogs in the Americas and not the Arctic dogs introduced later by humans. The team has not yet determined the paternal lineage of the dogs.
While several earlier studies, for example a 2018 study published in the journal Science, have established that European colonization of North America completely replaced indigenous dog breeds with European ones, the timing and the rate of replacement have not been established, nor has much attention been paid to the subject.
These indigenous dogs were likely acquired by the colony of Jamestown through trade or other interactions with indigenous Americans living in the region. They perhaps accompanied the indigenous Americans when they visited the colony to trade with the English, or perhaps even live in proximity with them. They were, however, unlikely to have been owned by anyone in the sense of “ pets.” “The dogs were possibly the equivalent of stray dogs today,” Thomas told Live Science .
That the dogs of the indigenous Powhatans were eaten by the colonists is not at all fantastical as the winters were so severe in those early years at Jamestown, Virginia. (ellenm1 / CC BY-NC 2.0 )
Consistent with Other Evidence
Live Science contacted other experts who all confirmed that the dog meat conclusions fit in with other historical evidence. “This study confirms historical primary source evidence suggesting that English colonists and Powhatans [a Native American group that lived in the area] interacted with each other at Jamestown,” Rachel Herrmann, a lecturer of history from Cardiff University said in an email.
Similarly, Peter Savolainen, head of the department of gene technology at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, said, “I am not surprised by these findings [they seem] logical based on earlier genetic studies of living as well as ancient American dogs.”
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A cautionary note was struck by Eric Guiry, a lecturer in biomolecular archaeology at the University of Leicester, who found the study “quite interesting” but, given that the findings have only been reported as a poster study, said it needs to be treated as a preliminary assessment.
What the complete study hopes to do is to show that indigenous dogs were not isolated from settler colonies. And that dog meat was a necessity in the colony until it reached food security stability. The final findings of the study, when published, will likely overturn simplistic theories about the colonial interactions with Native Americans and their dogs, and prove that indigenous dog lineages were replaced by European breeds at a slower rate and later than previously believed. But what is clear now is that dog meat was on the menu when times were hard in the early years of the Jamestown settlement.
Top image: Indigenous dogs of America. Source: dinopedia
By Sahir Pandey
Encyclopaedia Britannica. Jamestown Colony: The Starving Time and near abandonment (1609–11) . Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Jamestown-Colony/The-Starving-Time-and-near-abandonment-1609-11
Leathlobhair, M. et al. 2018. The evolutionary history of dogs in the Americas . Available at: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aao4776
Owen, J. 2022. Jamestown colonists killed and ate the dogs of Indigenous Americans . Available at: https://www.livescience.com/jamestown-colonists-ate-indigenous-dogs
Thomas, A.E. et al. 2022. Ancient dog mitochondrial lineages indigenous to North America recovered from Jamestown Colony . Available at: https://aaba2022.pathable.co/meetings/virtual/poster/StLmrbCrCMfEnQuEz