Research Reveals Early Jamestown Settlers Ate Indigenous Dogs to Survive

Cut marks on canine bones demonstrate that English colonists relied on dogs for meals

Illustration of Jamestown
A 1905 illustration of Jamestown from Harper's Encyclopaedia of United States History  Benson John Lossing, ed. Harper's Encyclopedia of United States History (vol. 5)

A new study shows that early English colonists in North America relied on man’s best friend for sustenance during harsh times.

The study, published in the journal American Antiquity, argues that cut marks on historic canine bones from Jamestown demonstrate that early European settlers skinned and cleaned the animals for food.

“Although the consumption of dog flesh in modern Western societies is considered taboo, there is a long history of eating dogs during periods of stress in England and other parts of Europe,” the authors of the study write. “This behavior meant that the occupants of Jamestown acted like other early Spanish, English and French colonists who consumed dog flesh in times of need.”

Archaeologists have excavated around 181 dog bones in Jamestown that belonged to at least 16 different dogs. The dogs likely lived between 1607 and 1617.

“The consumption of dogs suggests that Jamestown residents faced multiple periods of severe famine during the site's early occupation and later periods,” the study authors write.

Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the United States. Conditions for early settlers could be harsh. The winter between 1609 and 1610, known as Jamestown’s “Starving Time,” was so bleak that it resulted in the death of over 80 percent of the Virginia colonists due to lack of food and starvation-related illness. Some Jamestown colonists became so desperate for sustenance that there is even evidence of human cannibalism.

Dog skeleton
A drawing showing the butchery marks on a dog skeleton American Antiquity

The research team conducted DNA analysis on the bones and found that six dogs had maternal DNA related to Indigenous North American breeds. The team is uncertain whether the six Jamestown dogs are completely descended from native dogs or mixed with English breeds.

Still, the researchers believe that cross-breeding was not a popular practice.

“The ancestry of the Jamestown dogs provides insight into European and Indigenous management of their dogs,” Ariane E. Thomas, the study’s lead researcher from the University of Iowa, says in a statement. “Dogs with ancestry predominantly from Europe suggests that either British, Powhatan or both groups kept their dogs from interacting with each other to maintain specific behaviors or observable phenotypes important to that group.”

Not only are researchers learning more about life in the Jamestown colonies, they are also gaining insight into Indigenous canines.

The study notes that the European dogs eventually outbred their Indigenous counterparts, resulting in “a near-complete replacement of maternal Indigenous dog ancestry.” Today, most native breeds commonly linked to North America have mixed ancestry due to the influence of European settlers.

The researchers write, “Like other archaeological research that ignores the multifaceted nature of Indigenous presence and persistence within the ongoing context of colonialism, the loss of Indigenous dogs is an under-explored issue of colonial impacts in the Americas.”

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