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Study suggests dogs migrated to North America with earliest humans

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Posted at 4:06 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-24 16:10:09-05

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Researchers are studying the oldest confirmed remains of a domestic dog in the Americas and they believe DNA from the bone fragment holds clues about how canines made it the “New World.”

In a new study led by the University of Buffalo, researchers analyzed the remains – a piece of a femur – and concluded that the animal belonged to a lineage of dogs whose evolutionary history diverged from that of Siberian dogs as early as 16,700 years ago.

Scientists say the timing of that split coincides with a period when humans may have been migrating into North America along a coastal route that included Southeast Alaska. This suggests dogs came to the region with the earliest humans.

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“Because dogs are a proxy for human occupation, our data help provide not only a timing but also a location for the entry of dogs and people into the Americas. Our study supports the theory that this migration occurred just as coastal glaciers retreated during the last Ice Age,” said Charlotte Lindqvist, an evolutionary biologist and senior author of the study.

The team of researchers say they didn’t set out to study dogs. They actually came across the femur fragment while sequencing DNA from a collection of hundreds of bones excavated years before in Alaska and scientists originally thought the bone was from a bear.

"Before our study, the earliest ancient American dog bones that had their DNA sequenced were found in the U.S. Midwest,” said Flavio Augusto da Silva Coelho, one of the authors of the study.

The research adds depth to the layered history of how dogs came to populate the Americas. Lindqvist noted that canines didn’t arrive all at once. Some arrived later from East Asia and others were brought to the western hemisphere by European colonizers.

“Our early dog from Southeast Alaska supports the hypothesis that the first dog and human migration occurred through the Northwest Pacific coastal route instead of the central continental corridor, which is thought to have become viable only about 13,000 years ago,” said Coelho.