There are some things that we take for granted, but for those of us who own dogs, our pets aren’t one of them. So why has it taken so long to shine a bright light on North America’s earliest dogs? Dog domestication has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. With the development of sophisticated genomic techniques and a global effort to understand our most ancient non-human friends we now have more data about when, where, and how these animals were domesticated than ever before. But until recently, North American dogs played only a bit part in this scientific production. In this new paper, Perri et al. take a look at the chronology of early midwestern dogs, their lifestyles as embedded in stable isotope and paleopathological analyses, and their appearance.

Beginning in the late 1960s, excavations at the Koster site along the Illinois River was one of the key projects that formed the basis for an emerging multi-disciplinary approach to archaeological excavation. Rich in animal remains, the deep, stratified deposits at Koster offered a long-term perspective on Holocene climate and landscape changes. Excavators found a series of three dog burials in the earliest occupation at Koster. These burials were gingerly removed, painstakingly reconstructed (3D model: and subsequently described by Darcy Morey and Michael Wiant.

By themselves, these burials were familiar to archaeologists who had already found similar burials in younger sites. But the Koster burials were different. They were estimated to be ~8500 years old.

Only a few years earlier, avocational archaeologist Gregory Perino was conducting salvage excavations along a road-cut, upstream from the Koster site. The lowest component of the Stilwell site contained human and dog burials along with other archaeological materials. Perino published little about the site. Although the faunal remains were curated in the Illinois State Museum, they were never fully analyzed.

New direct dates on the Stilwell and Koster dog bones indicate rough contemporaneity between the two sites ~10,000 years ago. This was interesting because morphologically, dogs from the two sites were very different! The Koster dogs, as a group, were lightly built and about knee-high. The Stilwell dog was a similar height, but with a robust build like a English Setter. These dogs did not have a clean bill of health. Periodontal disease and severe tooth wear plagued the Stilwell dog, and incipient to severe pathological changes were present in all of the animals suggesting they led an active, occasionally accident-prone, lifestyle. Comparison of dog stable isotopes to regional datasets suggest a diet similar to later dogs and humans from Illinois, where fish possibly played a significant role.

Despite this excellent sample of the earliest dogs in the Americas we are still left with questions. There is at least a 4,500 year gap between the age of the Koster and Stilwell dogs and recognized initial human colonization of the Americas. Are earlier dogs unrecognized or simply unpreserved? Perhaps they arrive with a later colonization event? The story remains incomplete.


The Society for American Archaeology’s paper of the month for March, New Evidence of the Earliest Domestic Dogs in the Americas’, will be freely available until the end of the month.

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