Archeologists have recently published results of their work conducted at a 9th century Viking burial site in Great Britain that also included remains of horses, dogs and maybe a pig.
This work suggests Vikings traveled with animals far earlier than was previously thought.
Traveling with animals is taken for granted by most in the developed world and perhaps so in the developing world, too. In the developed world, for example, people travel with horses for sport, leisure and work. In developing countries, horses remain a primary means of transportation, agricultural work and in some cases, represent currency or barter.
In the past, traveling with small food animals such as chickens, goats, sheep and pigs ensured one had sufficient stores of food for the people without worrying as much about preservation.
But what about dogs? Dogs among Vikings were in the strictest sense service animals kept for protection, hunting and companionship. The latter is evidenced by the combined burial of human, horse and dog remains after cremation. This was usually done by mound building or inhumation. The horse and the dog were essential tools and they were a source of emotional and even spiritual value.
It would be all but unconscionable in our society today to kill, burn and bury the horses and dogs when their owner died. In the Viking age, not so much.
If one reads about the great indigenous ocean navigators of the Pacific and their travels, they piled dogs, pigs, chickens and rats on remarkable rafts and canoe-shaped sailing vessels and covered half the globe. For millennia, these native Pacific islanders crossed the great ocean like you or I may cross our local communities on foot.
There is arguably evidence that these ancient mariners and their animals, including dogs, made it to the far shores of South America and some say even beyond. Perhaps most remarkably, they made it back to where they started in some cases, too.
But here’s the real kicker; they had no compass, no numeric systems and no knowledge of formal (as we know it) celestial navigation. Some academics make the case that indigenous Pacific islanders navigated primarily by knowledge of weather and ocean conditions such as prevailing winds and swell patterns collectively passed down from innumerable generations of elders. They also knew celestial navigation and how it changed by both longitude and latitude, again from experience, not formal astronomy.
It was Thor Heyerdahl’s 1948 book, “Kon-Tiki Expedition,” detailing his voyage from Peru to Tahiti on a balsa tree raft that captured my attention in high school. The stubborn Norwegian set out to test a theory concerning the origins of the Polynesian race by proving that they drifted by chance from Peru to the islands. While he made it, he was most likely 180 degrees (pun intended) wrong.
All indications (human, animal, and plant genetics, ocean navigation algorithms and language origins) now indicate Heyerdahl, like many others who were ethnocentric, just couldn’t understand how so-called primitive people could have achieved what they did. As such, their work did not even consider that Asian people truly sailing west to east could have been the origin of this oceangoing spread of humanity.
If this little taste of one form of the great human migrations has captured your attention, please don’t start with “Kon-Tiki,” even though it reads well. Instead, look up the Polynesian Voyaging Society here: hokulea.com/vision-mission. Read about the great double-hulled sailing canoe, Hokuleea, or as it is also known, the Star of Gladness.
And yes, Polynesians always brought dogs on their voyages.
Powell is the retired public information officer for Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. This column reflects his thoughts and no longer represents WSU. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email email@example.com