What are the origins and history of dog sledding?

I work at an indoors skiing centre in Helsinki, where we operate an indoors Husky safari operation. The same place is the home of a robobus, an autonomous test vehicle. I tell my customers that this is thus the home of both the latest as well as the oldest mode of transportation known to man.

So how old is old? Really, really old. The latest archaeological studies on the Siberian island of Zhokhov[1] suggest that the bond between man and sleddog goes back further than previously thought. It is so ancient, actually, that it may well be the earliest evidence of domestication of any sort.

The evidence is quite strong, according to Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C, but the peer review, if I understand correctly, is still in progress. So please take this as a very good theory at this point, but not a proven fact.

For reference, the earliest evidence of the domestication of the horse goes back about 5,500 years. According to evidence[2] , it would appear that horses were in widespread use in Kazakhstan around 3,500 BCE. That is a long time, and we can see how well horses and humans have adapted to working together. But compared to dogs, that was yesterday.

The findings, which strongly suggest a breeding program was in place to produce dogs that fit sleddog requirements, in an arctic area where the benefit of such dogs is quite evident, suggesting that the bond between man and dog started 15,000 years ago. This was in Upper Paleolithic era, or Late Stone Age.

To put this into perspective, here is a timeline:[3]

  • 20,000 years ago: first pottery
  • 15,000 years ago: dog was domesticated
  • 14,000 years ago: pig was domesticated
  • 13,000 years ago: first evidence of warfare
  • 12,000 years ago: Walls of Jericho were put up
  • 10,000 years ago: Last glacial period ends (good thing we had sleddogs, aye?)

We cannot say for sure what the sleddog was used for, but if you look at later use cases that we have evidence for, they were most likely heavily used by fishers and trappers, moving from one hunting ground to another.

But what about the modern sleddog? I would say that the modern sleddog was born as a result of the Gold Rush in North America around 1900. The gold diggers had plenty of gold, plenty of dogs, but very little entertainment. It did not take long for them to start betting on who had the fastest dogs. And thus, the sleddog sports were born!

This post was originally published in Quora. You can visit the original post to see references, here

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