Research on First Nation’s wool dogs gives more insight into Tseshaht’s pre-colonial history


New research into the diets of dogs who lived in the region near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island has shed new light on the pre-colonial history of the Tseshaht First Nation. 

Over the past few years, the Tseshaht First Nation has collaborated with scientists and archaeologists to investigate its history, said Darrell Ross, a member of the nation and manager of its natural resources.

“Archeology shows deep, unequivocal indication of large populations of Tseshaht who have been in Barkley Sound for thousands of years,” said Ross to host Kathryn Marlow on CBC’s All Points West.

The latest research, detailed in a newly published paper co-authored by University of Victoria archeology student Dylan Hillis, is about the diet of wool dogs that once lived with the nation. The small dogs had thick white fur, very similar to sheep’s wool. Co-authors Denis St. Claire, Eric Guiry, Iain McKechnie and Chris Darimont also worked on the project.

The work is the result of a collaboration between the Tseshaht First Nation and the University of Victoria with support from the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

These dogs were important for producing wool for the local economy, Hillis explained, with their fur an essential component of ceremonial blankets and other regalia.

In this 1856 painting by Irish-born Canadian painter Paul Kane, a Coast Salish woman from Vancouver Island is depicted weaving a blanket. Next to her is a wool dog. (Royal Ontario Museum)

After contact with European traders and the introduction of cheaper sheep’s wool from the Hudson’s Bay Company, however, the wool dogs disappeared as a distinct breed. 

“To keep these dogs pure and have a good supply of wool, you had to keep them isolated from interbreeding with other types of dogs who were later introduced,” Hillis said.

Diets of dogs almost exclusively marine 

The dogs that Hillis studied lived between 300 and 3,000 years ago. The diet of the dogs, which was revealed through isotopic analysis of their bones, showed that they consumed an almost exclusively marine diet — including salmon, herring and anchovy as well as larger marine mammals like seal and whale.

“The dogs weren’t going out and catching these foods themselves, they were reliant upon Tseshaht people to be out and fishing to supply the food,” Hillis said. 

The data can shed light on not only Tseshaht First Nation fishing practices, but also their animal husbandry practices and the cultural significance of their companion dogs. 

For Ross, archeological studies like this one complement Tseshaht First Nation oral history and spiritual traditions.

“Every time we do something in archeology, another piece of the puzzle comes forward and that’s important to us.” 

Listen to the interview on All Points West here:

All Points West9:40New research reveals diet of ancient dogs in Tseshaht First Nation territory

Human settlements in coastal British Columbia date back thousands of years. But it wasn’t just people who lived in those communities. They were also home to domesticated dogs, including an ancient breed that was valued as a source of wool. For the past few years, the Tseshaht First Nation has been collaborating with scientists to investigate its pre-colonial history. The results of one of those studies has just been published in the journal Scientific Reports. It offers the first detailed analysis of the diets of these ancient wool dogs. University of Victoria graduate student Dylan Hillis is the lead author of that study and he joined Kathryn Marlow, along with Darrell Ross, manager of natural resources for the Tseshaht and a member of the nation. 9:40

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