"Sheep-dog", spindle whorls, and meditation

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Some people call it a "woolly dog", but that's more a description of what it's like.  That's not its name.  And it's not a "sheepdog" or "sheep dog", like a border collie.

Before I go any further into the nomenclature of canines, I want to recognize that they're all the same species:  Canis lupus familiaris.  No matter what their size, shape, coloration, or behavior, from the chihuahua to the great dane, they are all the same species:  Canis lupus familiaris.  It's only their breed that is different.  That is to say, they are bred to enhance different characteristics and to emphasize diverse traits.

Conversely, there are thousands of different species of birds.  It has always puzzled me why there is only one species of dog, but thousands of species of birds (upwards of 10,000), but I'm sure that somebody on Language Log will have the precise answer.  Is it that dogs are selectively bred by humans, whereas birds do their own thing?

The dog I'm talking about here — although extinct now — was raised for thousands of years for its wool!  It was carefully kept apart from other types of dogs to enhance its wool-bearing capability.  Like a sheep.  That's why I like to call it a sheep-dog, albeit somewhat jocularly.  It's a dog, but it has the wool producing characteristics of a sheep.

This is the Salish Wool Dog, which is extinct today, but existed for thousands of years until the 19th century.  We know of one sheep-dog named Mutton who died in 1859.  He may have been the last of his breed.

The Salish Wool Dog or Comox dog is an extinct breed of white, long-haired, Spitz-type dog that was developed and bred by the Coast Salish peoples of what is now Washington state and British Columbia for textile production.

Salish peoples, renowned for their weaving and knitting, did not raise sheep, and while mountain goat fur was also used to create wool textiles, mountain goats were wild, and thus their fur could only be collected from mountain goats leaving fur in the environment, such as from shedding, or collected from skins of hunted goats. The Salish Wool Dog was prized, then, for it being a source of material for wool that was a domesticated animal, and thus a consistent source of high quality material.


We now have good studies of the nature and fate of this very special kind of dog, as reported in this fascinating article:

Extinct Woolly Dog was Carefully Bred for Weaving, Ancient DNA Confirms

The Washington Post (12/15/23)


Ancient DNA from the pelt of a fluffy white dog named Mutton is revealing new details about the woolly dog, an extinct breed that was cared for and raised by the women of the Coast Salish tribal nations in the Pacific Northwest. The small dogs – called “sqwemá:y,” “ske’-ha” and “sqwbaý” in some Coast Salish languages – were fed a special diet of fish or elk, and they were shorn like sheep, their wool woven into special blankets and textiles.

For thousands of years, woolly dogs were cherished as family members and raised on islands or kept in pens to ensure they didn’t interbreed with other dogs, according to Michael Pavel, an elder of the Skokomish-Twana tribe and one of the authors of the study, published Thursday in the journal Science. The last woolly dogs disappeared around the end of the 19th century, but they have been kept alive in stories passed down by Coast Salish elders.

Sara de Rose, who has lived among the Coast Salish and is familiar with the lore, legend, art, and technology of weaving with dog hair, sent in the following notes (among others) on one aspect of weaving with sheep-dog wool:

It is said that the trance state that the spinner (usually a woman) entered into by watching the designs on the whorl blur as the spindle revolved allowed her to create textiles imbued with magical powers.
Years ago I came across an ancient Greek term that translated as something like "divination through the act of spinning" that was also associated with the drop spindle. More cultural diffusion? Or two distant cultures with parallel, independent traditions?

Though Sara does not have any indigenous blood, she lives on Hornby and Lasqueti Islands, which are both in the traditional Pentlatch territory, and the Pentlatch were Coast Salish. The Pentlatch language has no living speakers, and the few remaining members are now part of the Komoks First Nation Band.

It is possible that, during the first part of the new year, Sara may write a piece on Coast Salish woolly dog hair weaving tradition that will touch upon all relevant aspects of this phenomenon, including the terminology to describe it.

Selected readings

[Thanks to June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 19, 2023 @ 11:56 am

    "only one species of dog, but thousands of species of birds"

    Birds (Aves) are a class, taxonomically speaking. The class to which dogs belong is Mammalia, of which there are about 6400 extant species.

    The family Canidae comprises many species closely related to dogs, including wolves, foxes, jackals, dingoes, coyotes, etc.

  2. Daniel Barkalow said,

    December 19, 2023 @ 12:37 pm

    The one species of human has transported a single species we call dogs everywhere. The impressive thing that comes from selective breeding is that dogs have such a wide range of attributes without being different species. On the other hand, I think it's more surprising that there's only one species of cabbage/broccoli/kale/cauliflower/Brussels sprouts/collard greens (that is, all of these vegetables are the same species, selectively bred for different traits, and we don't even have a common name that applies to all of them).

    Sparrows, seagulls, emus, turkeys, and penguins are all birds, which is more variety than dogs have, unsurprisingly. On the other hand, the biggest variation within a single bird species I'm aware of is that the white doves you see people releasing are the same species as the pigeons you see in cities.

  3. KeithB said,

    December 19, 2023 @ 12:57 pm

    The definition of species is a bit fluid. In one respect some breeds could be considered different species. A chihuahua might not be able to interbreed with a great dane, for example. Also note that dogs, wolves and coyotes are all different species, even though there is some interbreeding between them.

    However, one reason that dogs have not split into different species is time: dogs have been around for far less than 100K years, while birds have been evolving for 100 million years or so.

  4. TR said,

    December 19, 2023 @ 1:36 pm

    an ancient Greek term that translated as something like "divination through the act of spinning": sphondylomancy. But Greeks prophesied by everything from entrails to barley to sieves to frankincense to cheese, so I don't think we need cultural diffusion to account for the parallel.

  5. Doctor Science said,

    December 19, 2023 @ 2:19 pm

    Domestic dogs have *by far* the greatest size diversity of any mammal species, and much much greater than any single species of bird, wild or domestic. I suspect that part of the initial genetic change leading to dog domestication involved a mutation loosening wolf size specifications, so the proto-dogs were smaller than usual wolves.

    Ask Elizabeth Wayland Barber, but I'm betting that sphondylomancy is a nearly universal practice, ranging in seriousness from a child's game to predictions about life & death, even within the same culture. Women in so many cultures spent a LOT of time spinning, and it can be quite hypnotic. What makes the Greeks unusual is that men noticed and gave a name to it.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    December 19, 2023 @ 3:42 pm

    What does that tell us about Greek men?

  7. Steve Morrison said,

    December 19, 2023 @ 9:17 pm

    “The Greeks have a word for it.”

  8. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    December 19, 2023 @ 10:37 pm

    It is more than a word or observation, as it has to do with religion. For the Greeks, it is the Μοῖραι / Moîrai. “Cultures” are often connected in Eurasia with similar symbolism, though I do not know about the natives of the Canadian coast.

  9. Doctor Science said,

    December 19, 2023 @ 11:11 pm

    @Victor Mair:
    I think what it tells us about Greek men is that they were used to women being oracles.

    But it may also be true that the Greeks, for all their misogyny, didn't have a perfectly solid wall between Men Things and Women Things. See, in contrast, how the men who wrote the Book of Genesis could describe human birth as hands-first, because they only knew about sheep.

  10. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 4:37 am

    "But it may also be true that the Greeks, for all their misogyny, didn't have a perfectly solid wall between Men Things and Women Things."

    Quoi? there was a clear separation of tasks in societies between men and women in every part of the ancient world unless some of the women became warriors in some cases (Sparta, Massagetae etc.). Prophecies in ancient Greece were made by men called mantis or "prophets," "seers," and Hiereus, or "priests." For women, it was a Hiereia, or a "priestess."

    For the "Book of Genesis," I dont think that "they knew only about sheep" in past Judea.

  11. Peter Taylor said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 5:54 am

    @Daniel Barkalow, doesn't "cole" cover all cultivars of B. oleracea?

    Other than sexual dimorphism in some species (e.g. some raptors), there isn't extreme size variation within a species of bird, but there are some with more colour variation than Colomba livia, particularly where domestication has led to deliberate efforts to preserve colour mutations. Some which come to mind are the Gouldian finch and domesticated poultry: domesticated ducks are nearly all mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), and I believe all domesticated chickens are Gallus domesticus, and both have considerable colour variety and some size variation.

  12. Lasius said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 8:13 am

    I want to recognize that they're all the same species: Canis lupus familiaris.

    Technically that's a subspecies or rather a domesticated variety. Dogs and grey wolves are the same species. Many wolf populations are closer to domestic dogs than to other wolf populations, whether by later introgression or by being close to the source population of domestication, which also probably happened more than once.

    Conversely, there are thousands of different species of birds. It has always puzzled me why there is only one species of dog, but thousands of species of birds (upwards of 10,000), but I'm sure that somebody on Language Log will have the precise answer.

    That's like asking why there is only one species of muscovy duck but more than 6500 species of mammals. You are looking at very different taxonomic levels.

  13. Lasius said,

    December 20, 2023 @ 8:59 am

    @Peter Taylor said

    A second species, the green junglefowl (Gallus varius) is used to hybridize with domestic chicken and produce bekisars.

  14. Terry Hunt said,

    December 22, 2023 @ 12:18 am

    I have recently encountered reports of scientific studies to the effect that dogs are not descended (by divergence) from the currently extant Eurasian (grey) wolf Canis lupus lupus, but directly from a closely-related species (or sub-species), the Pleistocene wolf, that has been extinct in the wild for 10,000+ years, though a (sub-)species of wolf in Japan (Canis lupus hodophilax) that became extinct only last century was also a descendant of it and therefore a 'sister (sub-)species' to Canis lupus familiaris.

    The classical Linnean taxonomical levels of subspecies, species, genus, etc., which were based (sometimes mistakenly) on observed and rather human-biased subjective physical characteristics, are not equivalent in 'magnitude' across different branches of fauna: for example, Birds are a Linnean "class", but clearly nested within the "order" of Reptiles and the "class" of Dinosauria (being specifically manoraptan therepod dinosaurs). These levels are becoming outmoded by cladistical 'clades', which are based on measurable genetic differences.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    December 22, 2023 @ 11:50 am

    "Clade" is not a taxonomic level at all. It just means "an ancestor and all its descendants", "monophylum".

  16. /df said,

    December 22, 2023 @ 2:58 pm

    Probably chickens are best analogy in birds for domestic dogs among canids. No doubt the local country shows in Pa have chicken-fancying competitions as well as those for cattle, sheep, corn, tubers, and maybe pigeons too. The varieties that I see in our local show range from tiny to giant with an wide range of feather styles.

  17. Terry Hunt said,

    December 23, 2023 @ 3:20 pm

    @ David Marjanović
    Yes, that was what I was trying (clumsily) to say – "levels" are illusory because they are not equivalent across (rather than down) lineages. Clades derive from separations in lineages, and their differences can be more objectively and accurately measured in terms of numbers of accumulated genetic mutations, many of which have no discernable effect on the phenotype, but which indicate degrees of genetic separation and give clues to speciation dates.
    (I know you know this, but non-biologists may not.)

  18. Tye S Power said,

    December 23, 2023 @ 8:17 pm

    I have lived in the Pacific Northwest most of my life but was unaware of the significance of the Salish Wool Dog. Interesting! It set in motion a train of thought that led to the Chinook Jargon. Have Language Log contributors ever written about this interesting trade pidgin?

  19. Victor Mair said,

    December 23, 2023 @ 9:29 pm

    @Tye S Power:

    Yes. If you search under


    "language log" chinook jargon


    you'll find dozens of posts.

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