During the nineteenth century, a craze emerged for claiming the medieval Norse as the first Europeans to visit the Americas, long before Columbus. The core of the claim turned out to be true. Vikings reached eastern Canada around 1000 CE, though the Victorians had no real physical evidence of this, only a few medieval texts and some hoaxed stones. But advocates soon expanded the claim beyond the evidence and beyond logic, turning the Vikings into an early version of European imperialists, imagining them colonizing both North and South America and bequeathing European culture to the natives. The French writer Eugène Beauvois was perhaps the most extreme advocate, imagining the entire civilization of ancient Mexico the work of the Norse. In South America, the twentieth century Nazi sympathizer and Peronist collaborator Jacques de Mahieu pushed a narrative that Vikings were the first Aryan colonizers of South America, and their early efforts paved the way for the Knights Templar.
This week, Ancient Origins published a piece by Geoffrey Brooks, a man who describes himself as “a pensioner” and “not an academic,” claiming that the Vikings reached South America. It ought to surprise no one that his evidence is rooted in the same nineteenth century conceptions that fueled the first run of claims attributing pre-Columbian American civilizations to the Vikings. Not a small amount is recycled, with citations, from Jacques de Mahieu, including the alleged legend of the “white king Ipir,” a supposed Viking royal reigning in the Americas. De Mahieu wrote a book about it, spinning a Viking and Nazi fantasy out of a confused legend believed by Aleixo Garcia (a.k.a. Alejo García) (d. 1525), one of dozens of misunderstood Contact-period stories where Europeans imagined “white” figures were possessors of power or wealth. In the best-known near-contemporary account mentioning the white king, Garcia went in search of “un rey blanco” and a kingdom laden with gold, but as Charles E. Nowell correctly concluded in 1946, the story was a slightly garbled account of the Inca Empire, told to a Portuguese traveling westward from Brazil by Natives who knew of Peru only through rumor and legend. The description they provided of nobles with silver crowns and heavy gold earrings and gold-inlaid belts was remarkably correct, however.
The first evidence Brooks used, however, was new to me and worth discussing a bit, if only because it is so strange. Brooks says that sheepdogs from Denmark were found mummified in an Inca necropolis at Ancon, Chile in the 1880s. As we’ll see, ever part of that claim is questionable at best.
Ancon is indeed a necropolis, though the Inca were the last in a line stretching back 10,000 years to use it. When Alfred Nehring found the dogs there and wrote up a German-language report about them, later published somewhere in Reiss and Steubel’s multivolume The Necropolis of Ancon in Peru that I have no interest in leafing through to find, he apparently had already come to believe that the bones were unusual. After taking measurements, he wrote in a longer 1884 paper that the bones were extremely similar to those of the European Turnspit or Dachshund. He gave the Peruvian bones their own species name, Canis ingae vertagus (i.e., the Inca greyhound).
According to the scholarly literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, bones of dogs of a similar type could be found from Chile to Virginia, dating from the Pleistocene to the Contact period, and a major dispute surrounded the question of whether any or all of these bones belonged to the genus Canis, a different genus, or whether they represented one or more distinct species or evolution from one species over time. Various bones passed under the names Canis robustus, Pachycon robustus, Macocyon robustus, etc. In common terms, it was called the short-nosed Indian dog. Eventually, most scholars recognized the bones as Canis lupus familiaris, the familiar dog, in contradistinction to a new species bred from coyotes of wolves, or a different genus altogether. Glover M. Allen, writing in Dogs of the American Aborigines, for the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, declared in 1920 that “There seems to be no doubt that Pachycyon robustus is after all only a breed of dog cultivated by the Indians of the southern part of North America and Peru. It is therefore no longer to be thought of as a problematical mammal of the Pleistocene.”
There are, of course, two different types of dogs, both related, being discussed here. The more ancient of the two is the short-nosed Indian dog, and the more recent is the so-called Inca dog. Nehring found both at Ancon, since that necropolis featured burials from 10,000 BCE down to the Conquest. Evidence from colonial-period Spanish writers like Garcilaso de la Vega made clear that the dog was present in the Americas before the Spanish, and descriptions from the time, along with extant breeds in the twentieth century that derived from the Inca lineage, suggested that the Inca dog descended from its short-nosed ancestor, whose wolf-like appearance implied that it accompanied the first Americans into the Americas not long after the domestication of the first dog. In 1916, for example, George F. Eaton called the breed living in his day “very wolf-like,” and Allen in 1920 went into numbing detail about the dogs’ osteological similarity to native dogs found throughout the Americas.
However, Brooks writes that in the 1950s, two French zoologists rejected this scientific consensus and declared that the Inca dogs could not be descended from the short-nosed Indian dogs. They argued that the bones were an exact match for a breed of sheepdog found only at Bundsö in Jutland in Denmark. Therefore, they concluded that the Danes gave some of these sheepdogs to the Vikings, who took them to Vinland, where they were traded southward after the fall of that Norse colony.
Unfortunately, Brooks did not provide a reference for this article, and his description is riddled with errors that make it hard to track. He identifies the Danish dog as “Canis familiaris L.patustris Rut.” By this, he must mean that the French zoologists were referring to Canis lupus familiaris palustris, Rütim., an old name for an early breed of domesticated dog (considered its own species, Canis palustris, in the mid-1800s) that many in the twentieth century considered closely related to modern sheepdogs. However, while this ancient dog is known from examples found in Danish peat bogs (hence the name) and archaeological sites, scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did not consider it unique to Jutland but rather thought it widespread across the Neolithic world. At any rate, it wasn’t a medieval dog.
While Brooks’s current article is a mess, it is a close reuse of material he posted on a discussion board in 2015, where he offered more detail. There, he confirms that I guessed the species name correctly, and he identifies the French zoologists: Madeleine Friant and H. Reichlen. That let me find their article rather easily. (Technically, Friat wrote the piece, with research by Reichlen.) Their evidence wasn’t as strong as they imagined, nor is it quite what Brooks described.
The correspondences they show between the Inca dog and the Neolithic Danish one are not perfect, as they claim, even to a naked eye comparison of the two skulls, and their conclusion is still more bizarre. They concluded that the Neolithic Danish dogs remained virtually unchanged down to the Middle Ages, leaving no other trace, until the Vikings made use of their descendants and took them to Vinland, where the Natives passed them on to the Inca a few centuries later.
Everything suggests that the dogs of the Vikings, about which we have no details, were the descendants of the Neolithic dogs of Scandinavia, of Bundsö, in particular. At the beginning of the 11th century, when the Indians, victorious, seized considerable booty from the Vikings, they certainly took the dogs, which they carried, in their nomadic life, to South America. And these are the dogs of the Vikings that we will find under the name of “Inca dogs” before the arrival of Christopher Columbus at the end of the 15th century.
In reality, the Vikings took with them to Iceland and thus theoretically to Vinland the similar breed known as the Vallhund, which origiated around 800-900 CE.
I needn’t remark that the authors are utterly ignorant of Native life in its complexity and diversity before Columbus—much less that the Inuit of Canada were not in cahoots with the peoples of Peru—but I should remark that the entire speculation rests on the identity of the Inca dog and a Neolithic Danish dog from five thousand years earlier—with no evidence of an intermediate stage or that the Vikings’ dogs were of unchanged character from their prehistoric counterparts.
The most parsimonious explanation remains that we are looking at a case where dogs, derived from the same early base stock, bred for similar tasks, achieved similar body shapes. In fact, if you remove the speculative elements from the authors’ own study, they show the same thing:
The conclusion, absent a preexisting belief in Viking global supremacy, must be that the Inca dogs share a common ancient ancestor with the Neolithic Danish dogs, probably the early domesticated dog, and breeding for similar purposes produced similar body types.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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