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Man’s best friend once made nice wool blankets, too

Eight years ago, Tessa Campbell heard a genuine shaggy dog story.

In 2012, Wayne W. Williams, an elder of the Tulalip Tribes, was donating material to the Hibulb Cultural Center on the tribal reservation in Washington state. He told Campbell, the museum’s senior curator, that his donation included a dog wool blanket.

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Weavers examining it were unconvinced, suspecting it was mountain goat wool. But examination under an electron microscope at the University of Victoria in British Columbia in 2019 confirmed what Williams, who died in 2017, had said: The blanket, dated to about 1850, contained dog wool, lending credence to stories from the oral tradition of the Coast Salish Indigenous peoples of a special dog that was long kept and bred for its fleece.

A study published last month in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology adds to the evidence for the industry that produced this dog wool, as well as its ancient roots. The analysis by Iain McKechnie, a zoo archaeologist with the Hakai Institute, and two co-authors examined data collected over 55 years from over 16,000 specimens of the dog family across the Pacific Northwest. It suggests the vast majority of canid bones from 210 Pacific Coast archaeological sites, from Oregon to Alaska, were not from wild wolves, coyotes or foxes. Instead, they were domestic dogs, including small woolly ones that were kept for their fur.

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While the Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest are often associated with their traditional harvesting of salmon, whales, herring and clams, their animal husbandry on land is less well known. The study highlights their underappreciated breeding of animals — particularly dogs — for wool.

One of McKechnie’s co-authors, Susan Crockford, has studied dog bones in archaeology sites for many years. Starting in the 1990s, she noticed that Pacific Northwest domestic dog remains were of two distinct size categories — large and small. But distinguishing domestic hounds from their wild cousins can be difficult, and most specimens from previous Northwest Pacific Coast zoo archaeological studies lacked species identification, said Madonna Moss, another co-author from the University of Oregon.

By going back over numerous earlier studies, the team discovered that British Columbia was a precontact hot spot for domestic dogs. And on the south coast of British Columbia, smaller dogs that would have had woolly fur outnumbered larger hunting dogs, and “seemed to be a long-term, persistent part of Indigenous community life for the last 5,000 years,” McKechnie said.

These knee-high wool dogs weren’t combed like modern pooches but sheared like sheep.

Indeed, journal accounts from a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post at Fort Langley, British Columbia, in the early 19th century described canoes from people of the Cowichan tribe that were filled with “dogs more resembling Cheviot Lambs shorn of their wool.”

The Cowichan peoples of eastern Vancouver Island are recognized to this day for their textiles. Lydia Hwitsum, a former elected Cowichan chief, said she learned traditional weaving from her mother, who explained to her daughter that dog wool was historically incorporated into yarn-making “to make the fibers even stronger.”

But with colonization came imported textiles. Demand for wool from these small white dogs dropped, their numbers dwindled and the breed is believed to no longer exist.

Detailed knowledge of the dog wool industry has long been lost. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests its use was once common.

Caroline Solazzo, a researcher at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, has tested 11 ancient Coast Salish blankets for signatures of dog hair. She found them in seven of the specimens. And of 47 blankets microscopically analyzed by Elaine Humphrey at the University of Victoria, all but three contained dog wool.

After “10 years of plodding” through data gleaned from merged piles of dog bone data, McKechnie said his team has found evidence of deep relationships between coastal Indigenous communities and domestic dogs, highlighting their 5,000-year-old fashion industry that relied on woolly breeds of man’s best friend.

Carly Ameen, a bioarchaeologist and dog specialist at the University of Exeter in England who was not involved in McKechnie’s study, said these new identifications of old bones are “hard to validate objectively.” But she said the study makes an excellent case for mining the mountains of dog data already available.

“If we are going to find more direct evidence for these wool dogs, and other dog ‘types’ in the Americas, it is not going to be through the excavation of new remains as much as through the detailed investigation of well-recorded and conserved collections such as this one,” she said.

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Back in Tulalip, Campbell’s blanket discovery has invigorated her whole community’s journey to reawaken ancient Coast Salish textile weaving.

And as for the unusual tale of dogs bred for wool, that’s a yarn still unraveling.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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