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Jamestown colonists killed and ate the dogs of Indigenous Americans

These butchered dog bones were found in the well of a fort at Jamestown. Photo courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia)
These butchered dog bones were found in the well of a fort at Jamestown. (Image credit: Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia))

Colonists at Jamestown — one of the first English colonies in North America — likely killed and ate local dogs, new research shows.

Most of the dog bones excavated at Jamestown have cut marks on them, suggesting that "it is possible that they were eaten," study co-author Ariane Thomas, a doctoral student of biological anthropology at the University of Iowa, told Live Science in an email. 

But given the starvation and evidence for human cannibalism at Jamestown, it is not surprising that people ate dogs, Thomas said. 

These dogs were at least partly related to those that first roamed the continent before European settlers arrived. 

Related: What happened to the 'vanished' colonists at Roanoke?

This photo shows the excavation of a dog mandible from a well of a fort at Jamestown. (Image credit: Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia))

Nowadays, in contrast, most dog breeds in North America are of European ancestry. The researchers presented their findings March 24 at the American Association of Biological Anthropologists annual meeting (opens in new tab), though the research has not yet undergone peer-review. 

Founded by the English in Virginia in 1607, Jamestown was the first English colony in the United States that was not abandoned. The English previously tried to settle Roanoke Island, in North Carolina, around 1587, but that attempt ended in disaster with the colonists disappearing. 

Jamestown nearly ended in disaster too, with food shortages wiping out many of the colonists. Some starving individuals became so desperate, they resorted to human cannibalism. However, the colony persevered and eventually grew.

DNA research

Researchers were able to get DNA from this dog bone, revealing that, at least on its mothers side, this dog was of indigenous North American ancestry. (Image credit: Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia))

To learn more about Jamestown's pups, the team took DNA samples from the remains of six dogs excavated from Jamestown within the last 30 years. Only two of them "had enough sequence fragments to assemble a near-complete mitochondrial genome," or DNA that is passed from mother to offspring via the mitochondria in cells, Thomas said. The tests revealed that the dogs' maternal lineage came from the A1b haplotype, which is associated with indigenous dogs from North America. The team has not yet done testing to determine the paternal lineage of those dogs. 

The findings suggest the people of Jamestown may have gotten some of the continent's original dogs through trade or other interactions with Native American groups. 

"Based on archaeological research and historical documents, Jamestown was a place of interaction between European colonists and the Indigenous communities [living in the region]," Thomas said. 

"It is likely that these dogs accompanied Indigenous people while those individuals were visiting — or perhaps living in — Jamestown," Thomas said. 

These dogs were probably not "pets" that belonged to any one person, however. "The dogs were possibly the equivalent of stray dogs today," she noted.

Scholars react

Dog remains seen in the Jamestown Rediscovery Lab. (Image credit: Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia))

Several experts told Live Science that the findings are consistent with other historical evidence from the time.

"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 senior lecturer of modern American history at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, told Live Science in an email.

"I am not surprised by these findings [they seem] logical based on earlier genetic studies of living as well as ancient American dogs," Peter Savolainen, a professor and head of the department of gene technology at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, told Live Science.

The research is "quite interesting," said Eric Guiry, a lecturer in biomolecular archaeology at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom.

But Guiry told Live Science that findings reported in posters are usually fairly preliminary. The researchers are currently preparing the work for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Originally published on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Owen Jarus

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.