Pulling sleds, hauling loads

Dogs have worked with people in a variety of ways over their long period of cohabitation with humans. Two of the quintessential roles of dogs in the circumpolar north were pulling sleds and hauling loads. Many have argued that it is hard to imagine life in the North American Arctic without dogs, which until only recently were the primary means of quick long distance overland travel and load hauling. In the Siberia Arctic and elsewhere in Northern Eurasia, dogs were joined by reindeer in human communities, and in some places also by horses, which shared in these tasks. It is also clear that dogs have been in the Arctic and Boreal/Taiga regions of the north for many thousands of years.  One would think that the prehistory of dog sledding and dogs as animals of burden would already be a thoroughly investigated topic in archaeology. This is clearly not the case.



Parts of sleds have been found in the Eurasia North dating back thousands of years. However, it is unknown if these sleds were pulled or pushed by humans, or if they represent evidence of very early dog sledding. There are a few very rare cases of ‘artwork’ that appears to depict dogs in harnesses (see below), but this evidence dates to the Late Holocene, long after dogs were present in the north, and long after the earliest evidence for the sleds. This begs the question: can we find signs of the skeletons of ancient dogs which indicates they were actually pulling sleds?


This small knife handle, from the Ust’-Polui site (in Salekhard, Russia), is often credited as being the earliest direct evidence for dog sledding in the Arctic. The handle end appears to depict a dog wearing a harness, and was excavated by V.S. Adrianov in the 1930s. It is around 2000 years of age, and the remains numerous dogs also are found at this fascinating site, some of which were clearly butchered. Photographs by R. Losey.

Bones of living animals respond to strenuous activity, or the lack of activity, changing both their shapes and sizes to compensate for the stresses they experience. For example, one’s arm bones will become more robust and slightly differently shaped due to doing a strenuous activity such as regular lifting of heavy weights, or playing tennis. This principle, bone responding to activity patterns, has been used by human osteologists for well over a decade to explore various topics such as boat paddling, long distance walking, and burden carrying. In our project, we apply this approach to dog skeletons.


 To accomplish this, we are carefully examining the skeletons of modern dogs with known life histories, which will help us establish the ‘skeletal signature’ of sled pulling and how this differs from that of dogs involved in other tasks. Further, the dog skeletons also we be compared to those of northern wolves, which of course do not pull sleds, but are long distance runners. Skeletons of sled dogs are extremely rare in museum collections, and the more we have available for our studies, the more dependable our results will be. Please see the HELP US tab if you know of such skeletons, or if you are willing to donate your deceased dog to our project.


The prehistory dogs carrying loads on their backs is as poorly known as that of sled dogs. The packs carried by dogs in the historical period were almost always constructed of perishable materials–hide and wood in most cases. Such materials do not survive in most archaeological settings, and we are unaware of any prehistoric dog packs. As a result, we again are left to search for clues in the skeletal remains of ancient dogs.


Vertebra from a 7000 year old dog buried near Lake Baikal, Russia. The bony projection on the top of the vertebra (the spinous process) arches slightly to one side, and other vertebrae in the dog showed similar warping, not always in the same direction. Note also the lipping (osteophytosis) along the base of the vertebra. In normal vertebrae, this lipping is absent, and the spinus process is not warped. 

Archaeologists have suggested that pack carrying by dogs is quite old, and the evidenced used for this are signs of deformation and wear in the spinal column. For example, dog skeletons have been found where the spinus processes are warped or deformed. These are the bone projections that point upward along the backs of dogs. The idea is that spines of dogs that were regularly carrying packs are deformed by the day to day pressure exerted on the body by the loads they carry. This would most likely occur when the dogs are carrying loads when they are young and the bone is still growing to obtain its adult form. Extensive wear on the back also has been linked to carrying loads. One problematic issue is that other processes can also affect the spine, including trauma, genetic abnormalities, and ageing. Also, it is unclear how common such deformations are in wild canids such as wolves–if they are, and they cannot be differentiated from those occurring in archaeological dogs, then they likely will be unconvincing evidence for burden carrying.

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