When conditions allowed, humans migrated across the Bering Land Bridge moving from Eurasia to North America thousands of years before the voyages of discovery of Columbus and other European navigators. That raises the question whether there were Native Americans who encountered Europeans before Columbus. If so, were these encounters of the first, second or third kind? Mystère.
For movement west by Europeans before Columbus, first we have the Irish legend of the voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator. Brendan and his 16 mates (St. Malo among them) sailed in a currach – an Irish fisherman’s boat with a wooden frame over which are stretched animal skins (nowadays they use canvas and sometimes anglicize the name to curragh). These seafarers reportedly reached lands far to the West, even Iceland and Newfoundland in the years 512-530 A.D. All this was presented as fact by nuns in parochial schools of yore, but, begorrah, there is archaeological evidence of the presence of Irish visitors on Iceland before any Viking settlements there. Moreover, in the 1970’s the voyage of St. Brendan was reproduced by the adventurer Tim Severin and his crew, which led to a best-selling book The Brendan Voyage, lending further credence to the nuns’ version of history. However, there is no account in the legends of any contact with new people; for contact with a mermaid, click HERE.
In the late 9th century, Viking men accompanied by (not so willing) Celtic women reached Iceland and established a settlement there (conventionally dated as of 874 A.D.). Out of Iceland came the Vinland Saga of the adventures of Leif Erikson (who converted to Christianity and so gained favor with the later saga compilers) and of his fearless sister Freydis Eriksdottir (who also led voyages to Vinland but who stayed true to her pagan roots). It has been established that the Norse did indeed reach Newfoundland and did indeed start to found a colony there; the site at L’Anse-aux-Meadows has yielded abundant archaeological evidence of this – all taking place around 1000 A.D. The Norse of the sagas called the indigenous people they encountered in Vinland the Skraeling (which can be translated as “wretched people”). These people were not easily intimidated; there were skirmishes and more between the Skraeling (who did have bows and arrows) and the Norse (who did not have guns). In one episode, Freydis grabs a fallen Viking’s sword and drives the Skraeling attackers off on her own – click HERE for a portrait of Freydis holding the sword to her breast.
Generally speaking, the war-like nature of the Skraeling is credited with keeping the Vikings from establishing a permanent beach head in North America. So these were the first Native Americans to encounter Europeans, solving one mystery. But exactly which Native American group were the Skraeling? What is their migration story? Again mystère.
The proto-Inuit or Thule people, ancestors of the modern Inuit, emerged in Alaska around 1000 B.C. Led by their Sled Dogs, they “quickly” made their way east across Arctic Canada, then down into Labrador and Newfoundland. The proto-Inuit even made their way across the Baffin Bay to Greenland. What evidence there is supports the idea that these people were the fierce Skraeling of the sagas.
As part of the movement West, according to the sagas, Norse settlers came to Greenland around 1000 A.D. led by the notorious Erik the Red, father both of Leif and Freydis. Settlers from Norway as well as Iceland joined the Greenland colony and it became a full blown member of medieval Christendom, what with churches, a monastery, a convent and a bishop. In relatively modern times, around 1200 A.D., the proto-Inuit reached far enough South in Greenland to encounter the Europeans there. Score one more for these intrepid people. These are the only two pre-Columbian encounters between Europeans and Native Americans that are well established.
In the end, though, the climate change of the Little Ice Age (which began around 1300 A.D.) and the Europeans’ impact on the environment proved too much and the Greenland colony died out sometime in the 1400’s. The proto-Inuit population with their sled dogs stayed the course (though not without difficulty) and survived. As a further example of the impact of the climate on Western Civilization, the Little Ice Age practically put an end to wine making in the British Isles; the crafty and thirsty Scots then made alcohol from grains such as barley and Scotch whisky was born.
The success of the proto-Inuit in the Arctic regions was based largely on their skill with the magnificent sled dogs that their ancestors had brought with them from Asia. The same can be said for the Aleut people and their Alaskan Malamute Dog. Both these wolf-like marvels make one want to read or reread The Call of the Wild; for a Malamute picture, click HERE.
We know the Clovis people and other populations in the U.S. and Mexico also had dogs that had come from Siberia. But today in the U.S. we are overwhelmed with dogs of European origin – the English Sheepdog, the Portuguese Water Dog, the Scottish Terrier, the Irish Setter, the French Poodle, the Cocker Spaniel, and on and on. What happened to the other dogs of the Native Americans? Are they still around? Mystère.
The simple answer is that, for the most part, in the region south of the Arctic, the native dogs were simply replaced by the European dogs. However, for the lower 48, it has been established recently that the Carolina Dog, a free range dingo, is Asian in origin. In Mexico, the Chihuahua is the only surviving Asian breed; the Xoloitzcuintli (aka the Mexican Hairless Dog) is thought to be a hybrid of an original Asian dog and a European breed. (Some additional Asian breeds have survived in South America.)
Still it is surprising that the native North Americans south of the Arctic regions switched over so quickly and so completely to the new dogs. A first question that comes to mind is whether or not these two kinds of dogs were species of the same animal; this question can’t be answered since dogs and wolves are already hard to distinguish – they can still interbreed and their DNA split only goes back at most 30,000 years. A more tractable formulation would be whether or not the Asian dogs and the European dogs are the issue of the same domestication event or of different domestication events. However, “it’s complicated.” One sure thing we know comes from the marvelous cave at Chauvet Pont d’Arc in central France where footprints of a young child walking side by side with a dog or wolf have been found which date back some 26,000 years ago. This would point to a European domestication event; however, genetic evidence tends to support an Asian origin for the dog. Yet another theory backed by logic and some evidence is that both events took place but that subsequently the Asian dogs replaced the original European dogs in Western Eurasia.
For one thing, the dogs that came with the Native Americans from Siberia were much closer to the dogs of an original Asian self-domestication that took place in China or Mongolia (according to PBS); in any case, they would not have gone through as intense and specialized a breeding process as would dogs in populous Europe, a process that made the European dogs more useful to humans south of the Arctic and more compatible with domestic animals such as chickens, horses and sheep – until the arrival of Europeans the Native Americans did not have domestic animals and did not have resistance to the poxes associated with them.
The role of dogs in the lives of people grows ever more important and dogs continue to take on new work roles – service dogs, search and rescue dogs, guide dogs, etc. People with dogs reportedly get more exercise, get real emotional support from their pets and live longer. And North America has given the world the wonderful Labrador Retriever. The “Lab” is a descendant of the St John’s Water Dog which was bred in the Province of New Foundland and Labrador; this is the only Canadian province to bear a Portuguese name – most probably for the explorer João Fernandes Lavrador who claimed the area for the King of Portugal in 1499, an area purportedly already well known to Portuguese, Basque and other fearless fishermen who were trolling the Grand Banks before Columbus (but we have no evidence of encounters of such fishermen with the Native Americans). At one point later in its development, the Lab was bred in Scotland by the Duke of Buccleuch, whose wife the Duchess was Mistress of the Robes for Queen Victoria (played by Diana Rigg in the PBS series Victoria – for the actual duchess, click HERE). From Labrador and Newfoundland, the Lab has spread all over North America and is now the most popular dog breed in the U.S. and Canada – and in the U.K. as well.