Dogs have long been considered ‘man’s best friend.’ Prehistoric canines – possibly early proto-domesticated dogs – were discovered in the archaeological record living 34,000 BC, at Goyet Cave in Belgium. Within the deepest cavern of the famous French cave Chauvet, recent star of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, are the prints of a child and a dog, dated to nearly 29,000 BC based on torch marks made by the child.
Although these early indications of human–canine association are disputed, most agree that by 15,000 BC dogs were truly domesticated. Evidence of domesticated dogs was found at a 15,000 BC German burial site called Bonn-Oberkassel and at the Israeli site of Ein Mallaha, dated to c. 12,000 BC, a human was found buried in a tomb with its left hand over the remains of a puppy.
Canine were our companions long before farming, and quickly grew to be ubiquitous. Dogs accompanied some of humanity’s earliest global explorers. The ancestors of all modern dogs were Old World grey wolves, so those which were found elsewhere – including the Americas and Australia – accompanied their human owners in their travels. Even the very first settlers of the Americas brought dogs with them – a dog was buried at Danger Cave in Utah in 11,000 BC.
Dogs have become such as integral part of human life that their closeness to people is even reflected in their scientific name: Canis lupus familiaris.
Guards, hunters, pack animals, companions – dogs have played many roles throughout the ages. In recent centuries humans have purposely bred them so that they look and act in specific ways. There are now more than 400 dog breeds recognized worldwide, and some have estimated that there are over 400 million dogs in total.
On Wednesday 26 October, the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) devoted a day of activities, talks, and visits by ‘man’s best friend’ to trumpet their key role in helping traverse the inhospitable artic landscapes and help explorers Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott reach the South Pole 100 years ago.
The Doggie Day at the Polar Museum event, aimed at both children and adults, was filled with activities. An authentic Greenland sledge, normally in storage, was on display and guests were invited to follow a dog trail around the museum’s exhibits. Five dogs, the breeds which were used in the Antarctic explorations, were also on hand: Nicola Stewart Winterton of the Greenland Dog Club brought two Greenland Huskies and Jenny Peacock of the Canadian Eskimo dog club brought Canadian Eskimo dogs and an Alaskan Malamute.
Recent mitochondrial DNA studies, in which the matrilineal ancestry of dog breeds were studied, revealed that these types of Artic dogs are extremely genetically close to their grey wolf ancestors. They have been honed over thousands of years to help human survive and travel in Artic conditions.
Greenland Huskies were brought to Greenland with the first Inuit settlers around 2,000 BC. Bred to withstand the harsh environments, purebred Nordic dogs and continue to be used as working dogs in many Artic communities today. And it is not just those who live in more traditional hunting societies who are capably assisted – the SIRIUS sledge patrol in Greenland is a Danish police force working with huskies to protect the Northeast Greenland National Park since 1950.
Dogs were a vital part of the early Antarctic expeditions. Amundsen exclusively used Greenland Huskies to help him be the first person to ever reach the South Pole 14 December 1911. Eight years prior, Amundsen navigated the Northwest Passage and spent the three years learning from Inuit people along the way, gleaning their techniques of living and traveling in the harsh polar environment, undoubtedly helping him with his Antarctic quest. Scott, whose ill-fated Terra Nova expedition team would reach the South Pole a mere 34 days after Amundsen on 17 January 1912, used a mixture of different breeds including the Canadian Eskimos and the Alaskan Malamutes.
Also appearing at the SPRI event were British Antarctic researchers who had worked with dogs in their expeditions. During their time in the ‘talking chair’ they spoke about their experience working with the dog teams of the Antarctic surveys. The common thread which ran through all the stories was the researcher’s enormous respect for their canine companions, and indeed how much they missed these dogs that were vital to their survival during dangerous missions.
Dogs played an important role throughout much of the British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) history, first official used in 1945. The original huskies came from Labrador, Canada, with a few later additions from Greenland. A breeding program was established among the bases to prevent hereditary disorders and inbreeding.
During the 1960s and 70s the use of sledge dogs decreased, replaced by mechanized transport. However a few huskies remained at Rothera Research station on Adelaide Island. According to the late Kevin Walton, author Of Dogs and Men: Fifty Years in the Antarctic, the dogs allowed station personnel and researchers the opportunity to experience, in a small way, the bond which was so vital to the early expeditions. It also boosted the morale of researchers – many were away from home for two or more years, living in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth.
In 1994 the Annex II to the Environmental Protocol (Conservation of Antarctic Flora and Flora) came into effect, requiring the removal of all dogs. There were concerns that the dogs might be carrying diseases which could affect the native animal populations as well as a fear that, should any animal break loose, they could harass or even kill the wildlife.
The loss of the huskies was met with resistance from the station personnel. In order to “mark the end of an era” the dogs returned to work during their final season, pulling a sledge around Alexander Island in support of the BAS research.
While the work at the BAS continues, much of it by researchers based at the Scott Polar Research Institute, the dogs continue to be missed. Indeed, many staff who were not directly involved in the event still emerged from their laboratories to get the chance to see and interact with the dogs.