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Enrique Terrones Archaeologist, INAH


XoloitzcuintleThe Mesoamerican Dog

Recent studies on the origin of the common dog (canis familiaris) show us that its direct ancestor was the wolf (canis lupus) 30 000 years ago. The process of domestication took place thanks to nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers in 10 000 B.C. in North America. The presence of the common dog in Mesoamerica was probably established around 8,000 B.C. The oldest remains were found in Cueva del Tecolote in Hidalgo, five skeletons of dogs associated with two human burials around 5 500 years B.C.

The results of the archaeological investigations and osteological analyses show us that within Mexico there existed three prehispanic canid races: the Itzcuintli or Chichi, the Xoloitzcuintle or Xolo and the Tlalchichi.

There were three races of dogs used in the rituals of the Mesoamerican people. The Aztecs used a dog, with yellowish and reddish hair, to accompany their dead into the afterlife. After sacrificing it, by shooting an arrow into the neck of the animal, the dog’s job was to transport, safely, the dead person through the “nine currents” to the Underworld. The day also required a similar companion, which explains the figure of the god Xólotl with the head of a dog. Xólotl was in charge of guiding the Sun towards its ascent; Xólotl means “twin” in Náhuatl (Uto-Aztecan language). The role of the dog as a spiritual companion of the living and dead, probably originated in the Zapoteca (pre-Columbian civilization) and Maya cultures, as they considered the dog to be the god of lightning.

The trade of dogs that occurred in Mesoamerica, (specifically in the markets of Tlaltelolco and Acolman) attracted the attention of the Spaniards who had recently arrived. In his Cartas de Relación (letters), Hernán Cortés indicates that fattened and castrated puppies were sold in Tlaltelolco –raised especially for eating and for sacrifices. Bernardino de Sahagún, a priest who arrived in Mexico in 1529, mentioned that people who were born under the sign of Nahui Itzcuintli (day of the dog) would be lucky and would become rich, therefore many of them were encouraged to engage in the trade of dogs.

In the Maya zone, there are different names for this animal. The generic word for dog was pec; hairless dog was bil or also ah bil, the term ix bil means female hairless dog, and to mention a puppy they said ah bincol. The dog has a complex importance among the Maya, it is associated with fire and lightning, and in the transporting of the spirits of the dead to the afterlife. Healers and sorcerers, uay, have the power to transform at will into an animal and usually in domestic animals such as uay pec (transformation into a dog) or uay mis (transformation into a cat).

The blood of animals could replace human blood in Pre-Hispanic rituals and sacrifices. In a ceremony for the year K’an, a dog was sacrificed by extracting its heart, also, in the month of Muan, dedicated to the cacaoteros (cacao tree), they would kill a spotted dog of cacao color, and in the month of Pax, they also remove a dog’s heart.

Historical sources describe the ritual practices. Pedro Sánchez Aguilar recounts “what I saw in my childhood was drowned puppies in a hole, they were small with no hair, called tzomes, and were sent as gift and food.” This same author points out that, in the Island of Cozumel, the Indians “would dance a hypotonic dance to the dogs they would sacrifice”.

In Quintana Roo, the archaeological study has focused on an important collection of 93 dogs discovered in San Gervasio, Cozumel. The dogs’ remains are thought to be from the late Post Classic period (1200 - 1500 AD). The comparative osteological study confirmed that the prototypes were of the common dog or Itzcuintli.

It is essential to mention the revealing discovery of another canine collection in the pre-Hispanic settlement of Chac Mool, between the Bays of Ascension and El Espiritu Santo, on the Coast of the Mexican Caribbean. In this area, 19 dogs were sacrificed and buried, four of them had three projectile points of obsidian and one in flint, which attests to sacrifice by arrow. The osteological study showed that the majority of the individuals presented a trait morphology similar to the common dogs, and also the presence of the Xoloitzcuintli and another type (perhaps a race yet to be discovered), was verified.

The Mesoamerican Dog

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