Ariane Thomas checked her results, then checked them again. But no matter how many times she ran the DNA sequence, it told her the same thing: All the theories about these dogs were wrong.
Thomas, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa, was in Jamestown, Virginia, studying ancient dogs: those brought by colonists to the first permanent European settlement and their indigenous North American counterparts. These indigenous dogs were largely wiped out by the Europeans, and Thomas was interested in why and how, hoping to reveal more about the relationship between European and Indigenous groups.
To find out, she has worked since 2019 with the Jamestown Rediscovery historical society to analyze dog remains from the settlement’s earliest years. All were assumed to be European, based on theories holding that colonists aided in the extinction of indigenous dogs by refusing to buy or breed them. But when Thomas sequenced the dogs’ mitochondrial DNA, she found that they were all native to the area.
The discovery complicates assumptions about European attitudes—the presence of indigenous dogs suggests that they played a role in Jamestown life, just like their European cousins. And as Thomas points out, a more nuanced story also indicates a more nuanced relationship between European and Indigenous groups at the time, implications that have led to her discovery being highlighted in publications from The Daily Iowan to The Washington Post.
“Because dogs and humans have had this relationship for so long, they can be used to reveal other parts of history that we wouldn’t be able to get at with the available materials that we have,” says Thomas. “And so maybe dogs can be our window into the past in a way we didn’t even know we could use.”
And there’s plenty more to reveal. Next, Thomas wants to sequence the dogs’ autosomal DNA for more insight on possible interbreeding between European and indigenous lineages. She also plans to analyze traces of the element strontium in the dogs’ jawbones, which may be able to indicate where they were raised by exposing what they ate when they were young.
None of this, Thomas says, would be possible without the support she receives from the UI. Student grants have helped fund her research, including the expensive process of genomic sequencing, and collaboration with other researchers, such as UI associate anthropology professor Matthew E. Hill, has added depth and complexity to her work.
“It’s been really nice to see people who have different specialties contributing their own knowledge and their own work to a larger collective,” says Thomas. “Bringing these interdisciplinary methods together to create one story has been really fascinating.”