Dog Sledge In Northern Eurasia

Possibly since Neolithic times, the use of dogs has played an important role in settling the Arctic. The oldest evidence for hunters with sledge dogs in the Eurasian Arctic was found on Zhokhov Island (New Siberian Islands). The dog, harness, and sledge remains were estimated to be 7800-8000 years old by radiocarbon dating. Researchers have dated dog bones in the ancient Yupik Eskimo settlements on the Asian shore of the Bering Strait at 2480-2630 years. Northeastern Asia (Kamchatka, Chukotka, and Yakutia) and northwestern North America are regarded as origins of the use of dogs for sledges, whence the dog sledge culture became circumpolar. However, in Scandinavia they had already traditionally used hunting dogs harnessed to a small sledge (pulka).

Technically, the use of dog sledges in North America remained primitive, whereas the indigenous peoples and Russian Old Settlers of Siberia and the Russian Far East substantially refined the sledge technique, training of the dogs, and their management. According to Roald Amundsen and other polar researchers, the Russian Old Settlers of the Kolyma River and Chukchi were most superior to all others in terms of training and managing dogs. Particularly noteworthy is the northeastern sledge (narta), referred to as the Kolyma or Chukchi sledge. Lightweight and assembled without a single nail, using only skin buffer links, the narta is elastic and strong, and best suited for riding in rugged terrain, among stones and ice hummocks. Anthropologists believe that this sledge originated as early as the Neolithic era for long-distance, light-load hunting, and to date has remained in two versions—cargo and racing.

In Russia, dogs are harnessed to the sledge both in a fanlike pattern and in tandem. The tandem harness is the most ancient and remains the most efficient method. This method appears in different versions throughout the area east of the Yenisey River. Frequently the dogs are teamed in pairs following one another. Eight to ten pairs of loops are located along a central strap (potyag). The dogs attach to these loops by means of wooden or bone fasteners, with each dog in its individual harness (alyk). Hunters west of the Yenisey River used and continue to use the fan-patterned team in various versions; until recently, the Novaya Zemlya team has been the most successful. The fan team sledge is shorter than the tandem team sledge and is adjusted for fast, maneuverable riding on flat ground without much cargo. In a tandem team, the draught force of the dogs is harnessed more efficiently. In addition, this type of team is characterized by high performance in cross-country terrain, hummocks, deep snow, and in the forest, and by its adaptability to transportation of heavy cargo and long journeys.

In the northern territories of Russia, two principal types of sledge dogs have evolved, which differ substantially in appearance, and according to numerous researchers originate from different ancestral forms. The first type of dog is the Samoyed, which is popular today throughout the world for its beauty and friendly disposition. This sledge dog, originally bred by European and Western-Siberian Nenets, is genetically similar to the Russian reindeer-herding Laika, which was also bred by the above-mentioned groups of Nenets. In present-day Russia, crossbreeding has led to the loss of the purebred stock of Samoyed. However, the breed has been preserved in Finland and England, where the dogs descended from stock exported from Russia early in the 20th century.

The second type is represented by fairly large, robust, and wolflike dogs that are used by the populations of the Arctic tundras and the coastal regions of the Far East from Novaya Zemlya to Sakhalin Island. The Russian cynologist (or dog researcher) Edmund Shereshevsky called this type "the northeastern sledge dog" after the region of its origin. This type consists of several populations, or breeds, named after their respective people or geographical region. The hardy, strong, and hard-working Chukchi and Kolyma-Indigirka dogs are regarded as the finest examples. According to data collected by V. Tugolukov on Kolyma-Indigirka teams of the mid-19th century, the Chukchi dogs attain an average long-distance speed of 10kmh-1 (6 mph), and up to 15-17 km h-1 (9-10 mph) on a route of 200-250 km (125-150 mi). A racing sledge could cover 250 km over 15 h and 750 km over 3 days. If the road had a dense snow cover, a team of 12-14 dogs could carry up to 1 ton of cargo; if off-road, that team could transport no more than 500 kg.

Until the 1960s, dog teams provided an essential, and occasionally the only, form of winter transportation in the northern regions of Russia. Local residents and federal services, including frontier troops and expeditions, relied on dog sledges. In 1937, in Kamchatka alone 50,700 dogs (more than 4500 complete teams) worked. The use of dog sledges in Russia declined during the last 30 years of the 20th century. The bulk of the population of indigenous sledge dogs disappeared due to a number of factors, including the advent of snowmobiles, the decline of hunting of fur-bearing mammals and of subsistence fishing, and the crossbreeding of sledge dogs with imported dogs of other breeds. Not only crossbreeding but widespread famine and disease in the 1990s led to the death of large numbers of sledge dogs in Eurasia. Only the sledge dog population of Chukotka survived and even increased in the 1990s. In Chukotka, sea mammal hunting in winter relied upon the work of sledge dogs, and the products of marine hunting provided food for the entire Eastern Chukotka.

Sledge dogs have historically played a significant role in the economic as well as the spiritual life of the peoples of the North. Often considered as guardians of the home and family, native populations used sledge dogs as cult and sacrifice animals, and in the performance of rituals that continue to emphasize the special relationship between dog and master. In fact, Asian Eskimos would not treat a dog that fell ill; they believed that the animal's disease would "come to the master." The languages of numerous indigenous peoples have numerous words associated with dog sledge, their breeding, and training. Today, indigenous peoples of the North have been striving to revive the traditions of the dog sledge and its multifaceted, social, and spiritual meanings.

Lyudmila Bogoslovskaya Translated by Petr Aleinikov

See also Dog Sledge in Inuit Culture Further Reading

Bogoslovskaya, Lyudmila, "BrnocAoecKaa fiwdMuna O e3goBMX co6aKax u He tohlko o hhx // X. gpyr" [On sledge dogs and not only about them], Droug [Russian Dog Fancy Magazine], Moscow, No. 6, 1999

Coppinger, Lorna, The World of Sled Dogs. From Siberia to Sport Racing (5th printing), New York: Howell Book House, 1987

Handford, Jenny Mai, "Dog sledging in the eighteenth century: North America and Siberia." Polar Record, 34(190) (1998): 237-248

Shereshevsky, Edmund, Pavel Petryaev & Golubev Vladimir, MeperneecKuU ^^MyH^, neMpaee naeen, rony6ee BnaduMup [Dog Sledge], Moscow-Leningrad: Glavsevmorput' Press, 1946 Smolyak, Anna, Cmoahk AHHa Hapogti Haxero AMypa u CaxanHHa [The peoples of the lower reaches of the Amur River and Sakhalin], Moscow: Nauka, 2002 Tugolukov, Vladillen, TyzonyKoe BnadunneH Kto bh. roKarnpti? MocKBa: HayKa [Who are you Yukagirs?], Moscow: Nauka, 1979

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