Posts Tagged ‘Beothuk’

Wolf in the snow

The Beothuks were the indigenous people of Newfoundland who were living there in the early colonial period.

Contrary to what you may read, the Beothuk probably did not own dogs. There are no archeological records of dog remains near Beothuk settlement, and most of the earliest accounts of the Beothuk make no mention of canines.

But they did have a relationship with the Newfoundland wolf that might be called semi-domestication. (I disagree very strongly that these accounts are of a feral or a semi-domesticated Native American pariah dog. There apparently were none of these animals on Newfoundland when Europeans arrived! There probably were dogs associated with European and Míkmaq settlements on the island, but none with the Beothuk.)

This account, published in 1620, comes from Richard Whitebourne, an early colonist and cod fisherman who had originally served on his own ship against the Spanish Armada.  Whitbourne set up a cod fishing colony at Renews, Newfoundland, sometime after the Armada was defeated. This is his account of the relationship between the Beothuk and the wolf of Newfoundland:

For it is well known that they are a very ongenious and subtile kind of people (as it hath often appeared in divers things), so likewise are they tractable, as hath been well approved, when they have been gently and politically dealt withall; also they are a people who will seek to revenge any wrongs done unto them, or their wolves, as hath often appeared. For they mark their wolves in the ears, with several marks, as is used here in England on sheep, and other beasts, which hath been likewise well approved; for the wolves in these parts are not so violent and devouring as those in other countries, for no man that I ever heard of, could say that any wolf. . . did set upon any man or boy.

Richard Whitbourne Discovery and Discourse of the Newfoundland (1622 printing)

(The Beothuck were called “Red Indians” because they painted themselves with ochre.)

The relationship here is rather weird. There is no evidence that the Beothuk were feeding their semi-domesticated wolves, nor were they using them for anything, such as hauling loads or guarding. They were hunting and fishing people, who relied upon the sea’s bounty, as well as the herds of caribou to feed them.  They were known for setting up elaborate deer fences, which they used to drive the caribou into a central arena where they could be easily dispatch with the use of bows and arrows.

Whitbourne’s mastiff dog eventually goes wandering in the wilderness. Today, if such a thing happened in wolf country, the dog would be at risk.

Whitbourne’s mastiff was greeted by the wolves, who then decided to play with the dog. In fact, the mastiff would disappear for days to play with its lupine brethren.

The Beothuk had no reason to hate the wolf. They were a hunting people, who may have seen the wolf as a comrade that kept the herds healthy. Very little was ever written about Beothuk mythology; most contemporary accounts claim that they had no religion, which is a very common (and probably inaccurate) statement by many early European colonizers. Because of this lack of a good account of their religious beliefs, we are left with no understanding of how the wolf fit into their cultural and religious worldview.

However, this is one of the best accounts of the relationship between a hunter-gatherer people and a population of wolves that had not suffered wide-spread persecution. There are accounts of the Beothuk trapping wolves for their fur, but whether this habit was part of their original culture or something they adapted to fit into the European market economy is a good question. In fact, because the Beothuk began to see the wolf pelt as something valuable to trade with the Europeans, it may have ultimately led to the break down of the relationship between hunter-gatherer man and wolf.

It is accounts of relationships like this one that possibly tell us what early man’s relationship with the wolf was like. Wolves were curious about people, and people were fascinated by wolves. The fact that they hunted the same prey forged an unusual relationship that lasted until man began to raise livestock. When that happened, all bets were off, and the wolves that could live with man and his stock became dogs. Those that could not became wolves, and man then decided to make the wolf become extinct. This push to near extinction put a selective pressure on all wolf populations that made them nearly impossible to domesticate and far more reactive than they once were. That is why virtually all wolves today are very difficult to keep in captivity, and why most experts very urge people not to keep wolves as if they were dogs.


On a somewhat unrelated note, here is a photo of Adolph Murie with his family and the pet wolf named Wags.

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