For most of my life, I have been accompanied by dogs – a source of companionship, challenge, joy, humor, distraction, and, yes, sadness. We know how nearly every account of some special dog that graced a writer’s life typically ends; I guess I’m unduly squeamish about such narratives.
With that as context, it’s not surprising that I’ve been thinking about the relationship of humans and dogs given that I have just finished reading Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth: Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole, a masterful, gripping account of the efforts by the Englishman Robert Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen to reach the Pole in 1911 - 1912. Amundsen succeeded, reaching the South Pole on December 15, 1911, and returning to tell the tale; tragically, Robert Scott and his team attained the Pole a month after Amundsen but perished during their return. Though failing to make it back, Scott managed to tell the tale through his moving journal. I’ve posted on Scott previously and the fossils he collected on the way back.
Scott approached the journey to the Pole by employing disparate means of transportation – he used motorized sledges, ponies, dogs, and men. The first were an abysmal failure due to mechanical breakdowns, and ponies became a burden to the expedition because they were largely ill-suited for life or movement in the polar environment. Dogs . . . ah, despite evidence to the contrary, Scott was biased against dogs as beasts of burden in polar regions and, as a result, used them poorly. A reading of his journal leaves little doubt that, for Scott, the appropriate way to reach and return from the South Pole was by “man hauling” where the men pulled the sledges themselves, sometime using skis, sometimes not.
In contrast, Amundsen relied on dogs to provide the brute strength needed to pull the sledges, accompanied by men on skis. Huntford posits that Amundsen and his team worked to make the dogs succeed because of a deep antipathy to man hauling.
Before exploring Amundsen’s use of dogs, I must acknowledge that Huntford and others, beginning in the 1960s, wrote histories of Scott that created a portrait of dramatically failed leadership. These histories challenged the orthodox view that held up the man as a great leader and hero done in by the fickleness of nature and fortune. Huntford, in particular, generated significant blowback by Scott loyalists, perhaps because his account is so well written and persuasive. Be that as it may, I am using Huntford principally for his account of Amundsen’s plans for, and use of dogs, not his take on Scott.
The reasons that motivated Amundsen to rely on dogs for polar travel were myriad – their service as beasts of burden was the primary one. He was convinced dogs were best suited to travel in polar regions and so expressed surprise at Scott’s general rejection of this animal. “There must be some misunderstanding or other at the bottom of the Englishmen’s estimate of the Eskimo dog’s utility in the Polar regions. Can it be that the dog has not understood his master? Or is it the master who has not understood his dog?” (Roald Amundsen, The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the “Fram,’ 1910- 1912, translated by A.G. Chater, Volume 1, 1913, p. 58) The Norwegian brought only Greenland Huskies to Antarctica; not just because those dogs were able to handle the harsh conditions, but they also had a host of personality traits that helped make life in these brutal and often monotonous landscapes bearable. In his portrait of the Eskimo dog, Huntford strings together a powerful array of descriptors – “loyal, intelligent, brave, persevering.” At the same time, this dog could be “thieving, bullying, malingering.” He adds that it is “is a compulsive fighter and a social animal.” “His relation to his master is not that of servile beast, but of contractual dependent, performing certain duties in return for food and protection.” (Last Place on Earth, p. 94 – 95)
The consequences for most of the dogs that began the trek to the South Pole with Amundsen were dire. There was an inexorable and deadly logic at work. This is what I’ve come to understand from Huntford’s account and other sources. Before the 1911 Antarctic winter had set in, Amundsen had created a massive depot of nearly 2 tons of supplies at 80º south latitude (some 100 miles south of his base camp, Framheim, on the Ross Sea) and substantial depots housing about a ton of supplies further south at the 81º and 82º south latitudes. When the actual assault on the Pole was launched in October, 1911, the supplies in these depots were to be hauled deeper south into the Antarctic wilderness to nourish men and dogs not only on the journey to the Pole, but, through the creation of additional depots, for the journey back north again. At the outset, a large force of dogs would be needed to haul all of the supplies from these first depots. But as the team moved south consuming food and fuel as it went, and offloading supplies at new depots, the number of dogs required would decline. Continuing with unnecessary dogs increased both the amount of food needed to be carried on the sledges and the demand on the supplies cached in the depots necessary for the journey back north. At some juncture on the trek south, many of the dogs would have to be put down. Indeed, the bodies of those victims would feed their canine brothers and sisters, as well as the men. Amundsen was frank about this calculus regarding his choice of the dog as his beast of burden – “[T]here is the obvious advantage that dog can be fed on dog. One can reduce one’s pack little by little, slaughtering the feebler ones and feeding the chosen with them.” (The South Pole, Volume 1, p. 58.) It’s brutal mathematics but, once the expedition was set in motion, the death of most of the dogs was inevitable.
On October 26, 1911, Amundsen and 4 of his men left their depot at 80º south latitude with 4 sledges each being pulled by a team of 12 dogs. The South Pole lay 600 miles to the south. Of the 48 dogs that set forth that day, I believe only 12 made it back to Framheim on January 26, 1912. Most of the dogs died at the hands of the men who had charge of their teams. (Amundsen did not have a team, rather he sometimes acted as “forerunner,” leading the expedition and offering the dogs an object to follow in the white sameness).
From 80º south latitude, Amundsen followed his plan to run all of the dogs until the expedition traversed the Great Ice Barrier (Ross Ice Shelf) and found its way through the Transantarctic Mountains to the Polar Plateau, roughly two-thirds of the way to the Pole, with the worst of the hauling behind them. When they stopped on November 21st on the Polar Plateau, the number of dogs was down to 42 dogs, a half dozen having either wandered off or been killed for certain “transgressions” (such as coming into a heat, an event drastically disruptive to the functioning of a dog team). Here on the Polar Plateau, at what came to be called the Butcher’s Shop Depot, each man in charge of a team of dogs had to kill a number of his dogs to bring the overall total number of dogs down to 18, a group that would be reorganized into 3 teams. As Amundsen wrote in his account, “It was hard – but it had to be so. We had agreed to shrink from nothing in order to reach our goal.” (The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the “Fram,’ 1910- 1912, translated by A.G. Chater, Volume 2, 1913, p. 67.) The Butcher’s Shop was a scene of massacre but also one of feast for dogs as well as men. In addition to the nutrition provided, the fresh meat served to ward off scurvy for man and dog. Later, more attrition occurred until just a dozen dogs made it back from the Pole.
Pictured below is Oscar Wisting at the South Pole with a team of the fortunate dogs. (This picture is from Amundsen’s The South Pole, Volume 2.)
My first reaction on reading about the fate of Amundsen’s dogs was to assert, in my usual anthropomorphizing fashion (particularly when it comes to dogs),
Wait! That’s not part of the contract struck by the first dogs and humans.But the more I’ve read of the scientific literature on the evolution of wolves (Canis lupus) to dogs (Canis familiaris), and the initial domestication of protodogs, the less certain I am about the validity of my complaint.
Within scientific circles the consensus position appears to accept the wolf as the source of the dog. Biologist Rodney L. Honeycutt makes this point in his succinct and informative article on the dog’s evolution (Unraveling the Mysteries of Dog Evolution, BMC Biology, Volume 8, Number 20, 2010.) The strongest evidence for the wolf as the source is based on genetic analysis. Bones from early dogs and wolves cannot be used to construct this evolutionary narrative because distinguishing among those bones is so often problematic.
Archaeological and genetic analyses have, as yet, failed to answer a number of important, related questions, including: Did the dog originate once from a single stock of wolf, or more than once from multiple stocks? Where did it originate? When?
As Honeycutt observes, much of the available research to date supports the notion that dogs arose on multiple occasions from several wolf stocks, and that archaeological evidence suggests European or Middle Eastern points of origin. Work on the genetic evidence is clearly proceeding apace, generating some fascinating, though contradictory results. Some genetic analysis has posited the Middle East as a key point of origin for the dog (see Bridgett M. vonHoldt, et al., Genome-wide SNP and Haplotype Analyses Reveal a Rich History Underlying Dog Domestication, Nature, April 8, 2010). Most recently, teams of researchers, in several studies analyzing the mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome of an array of dogs and wolves, have concluded that dogs originated just once, and the place of origin was in Asia, south of the Yangtze River (ASY), from a stock of several hundred wolves. Their reading of their findings is based principally on the premise that canine genetic diversity should be greatest at the place or places of origin, and, indeed, these researchers found far greater canine genetic diversity in ASY than elsewhere. (Jun-Feng Pang, et al., mtDNA Data Indicate a Single Origin for Dogs South of the Yangtze River, Less than 16,300 Years Ago, from Numerous Wolves, Molecular Biology and Evolution, Volume 26, Number 12, 2009; Z-L Ding, et al., Origins of Domestic Dog in Southern East Asia Is Supported by Analysis of Y-chromosome DNA, Heredity, Volume 108, 2012.)
I don’t have the background to assess such genetic studies, but I do recognize and enjoy debate and disagreement when I find it. Honeycutt criticizes the ASY research because of an imbalance in the sampling – the number of canine DNA sequences analyzed far exceeded the number of wolf sequences. “Such asymmetry in sampling of the wolf population is likely to bias any conclusions about origin. Given the fact that wolves, dogs and other members of the genus Canis are inter-fertile, there is a high likelihood that dogs and wolves interbred subsequent to hybridization, thus complicating the derivation of the number of founders for dog lineages.” (Honeycutt, p. 3)
In general, estimates of the timing of the dog’s origin varies depending upon whether the analysis is based on archaeological or molecular evidence. Honeycutt cites a range of between 13,000 to 17,000 years ago for the former, and between 76,000 and 135,000 for the latter. Though Pang’s report – see above – suggests an origin more recent than 16,300 years ago, it presumably conforms to Honeycutt’s contention that “most recent molecular studies embrace data provided by archaeological evidence.” (Honeycutt, p. 3)
Nevertheless, disputes about places of origin and its timing should not obscure the fact that humans and dogs have had a longstanding relationship.
The dog was probably the first domesticated animal and the only one accompanying humans to every continent in ancient times and has therefore a central position in human history. (Pang, p. 2849)Juliette Clutton-Brock suggests that the forging of a hunting partnership between protodogs and humans may have marked the first element in the original canine-human “contract” (that’s my term, not hers). (Origins of the Dog: Domestication and Early History, in The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior, and Interactions With People, edited by James Serpell, 1995.) Given where this post began, I find her discussion of the uses of dogs in Australia and North America to be particularly interesting.
For thousands of years, on the two continents of Australia and North America, the native peoples had dogs but no other domestic mammals until the arrival of Europeans. Although the dog was never used for traction in Australia, as it was by the native Americans, it was greatly valued by the Aborigines as a hunting partner, companion, bedwarmer and occasional item of food. (Clutton-Brock, p. 15, emphasis added)To drive the point home even harder, I turn once more to Pang’s research article that posits an ASY point of origin. In that piece, the authors go well beyond the reach of the genetic evidence they gathered and fashion a storyline for the initial domestication of wolves. Rather than a contract struck between hunters – human and protodog – the authors suggest that the life-changing interaction came in a human society with sedentary aspects because “[i]t seems probable that some degree of sedentary life would have facilitated the wolf taming and domestication process.” Not only was such a sedentary society forming in southeast Asia, more to the point, the authors note that southeast Asia has had a long historical tradition of eating dog.
It may therefore be speculated that the wolf was domesticated for its use as a source of food rather than for hunting, guarding, or companionship as mostly suggested, perhaps under influence of a European non-dog easting perspective. (Pang, p. 2863)Whoa, I didn’t see that coming. But, upon some reflection, I suspect these researchers are incorrect with regard to the primary motivation for domestication. The other sources of protodog’s value to humans would, in my European-biased view, far outweigh any of its value as food. Writer Mark Derr in How the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best Friends (2011) argues vehemently against the idea that wolves were domesticated for their food value. Anyway, to my mind, it’s much easier to latch on to Clutton-Brock’s portrait of Australian Aborigines opting for all of the above in terms of their relationship to dogs. Of course, that multi-faceted relationship developed long after the first dogs were domesticated.
In the final analysis, biased or not, I think killing and eating one’s canine companion lies outside the bounds of our mutual contract of interdependence.
The canine story I enjoyed most from Huntford’s account of the Amundsen race to the Pole (besides the fact that every time Amundsen and his men pitched their tent, they had to bank snow around it to keep the dogs from pissing on it) is actually a post-Antarctic one. Wisting’s lead dog, The Colonel (presumably among those pictured above) survived the polar expedition and went on to live with Wisting in Norway. Wisting wrote of his dog, “[H]e enjoyed his retirement with gusto.” And there was the quiet side to The Colonel's old age when he would visit the Salvation Army. “He sat outside their premises every evening in all kinds of weather and listened reverently to the speeches, songs and music.” (As quoted in Huntford, p.461) Of course, The Colonel’s story ends as nearly all dog stories do and, even after all of this, I wont go there.