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Working Like Dogs: A systematic evaluation of spinal pathologies as indicators of dog transport in the archaeological record Open Access


Other title
dog transport
skeletal indicators
dog archaeology
spondylosis deformans
marginal osteophytes
sled dogs
spondylosis deformans in dogs
spondylosis deformans in wolves
dog domestication
spinal pathology
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Latham, Katherine J
Supervisor and department
Losey, Rob (Anthropology)
Examining committee member and department
Garvie-Lok, Sandra (Anthropology)
Ives, John (Anthropology)
Hill, Joseph (Anthropology Department Chair)
Department of Anthropology

Date accepted
Graduation date
2016-06:Fall 2016
Master of Arts
Degree level
The use of dogs for pulling or carrying loads is well documented in the recent and historic past in many parts of the world. While the use of dogs for similar activities in prehistory seems likely, there is little artifactual evidence in the archaeological record to support such speculation. Some archaeologists have suggested that pulling or carrying loads may leave unique signatures of stress on the skeletons of dogs used for these activities and that such skeletal indicators may be used to identify the utilization of dogs for transport in archaeological assemblages. The utilization of skeletal indicators for identifying archaeological dogs used for pulling or carrying loads is largely based on observations of prehistoric dog remains and archaeologists’ interpretations of veterinary literature on dogs and other draft animals, including a famous study of the mid-20th century British Antarctic Survey sled dogs. Several pathologies, including the spinal pathologies spondylosis deformans, and the occurrence of bent, fractured or otherwise deformed spinous processes, all have been suggested as potential skeletal indicators for these types of dog transport. Though the use of skeletal indicators is appealing, there have been no large scale studies evaluating the occurrence of such lesions among both wild canids and dogs never used for pulling or carrying loads. In the absence of such data it is unclear if it is appropriate to attribute these skeletal abnormalities to specific occupational etiologies. Many of the indicated pathologies are also positively correlated with the aging process and are commonly found in older dogs. Spondylosis deformans occurs in many animals and has been shown to have possible sex and genetic components and to be more common in certain breeds and types of dogs. It thus seems possible that the indicators thought to be correlated with the use of dogs for transport may in fact actually reflect genetic and aging processes rather than their habitual activities. This possibility is especially hard to eliminate when dealing with archaeological dog specimens, which are often fragmented and their age, sex, and life history unknown. This study systematically analyzed the occurrence of spondylosis deformans and spinous process deformities in 155 modern dogs never used in transport activities, 19 sled dogs, and 241 wild wolves to evaluate the reliability of these pathologies as indicators of dog transport in archaeological assemblages. Results of this analysis suggest that spondylosis deformans is not a reliable skeletal indicator of dog transport because both dogs and wolves are affected by the disease at high rates that cannot be distinguished from other etiologies. Due to methodological challenges, analysis of spinous process deformities was inconclusive and the reliability of such deformities as skeletal indicators of transport remains uncertain. However, comparison between the results of this study and previous archaeological studies suggests that patterns of spinous process deformities in archaeological populations are different from those seen in modern dogs and wolves and are worthy of further investigation. Ultimately, this study highlights the need for better understanding of the causes of bent spinous processes, and the natural range of spinous process deformities in canids, as well as a standardized methodology for measuring and describing these deformations in archaeological specimens.
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