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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The story of dogs in Mesoamerica as pets, guardians, and even gods

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A 14th-century illustration depicts an Itzcuintli above a Mexica scene depicting a baby, as dogs were considered to bring good omens and were associated with beginnings. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magaine

Archaeological and iconographical sources make it clear that just like today, even in the distant Mesoamerican past, dogs were mankind’s best friend. 

A Zapotec clay figure depicts a domestic scene with their beloved pup inside a family’s home. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But unlike other regions of the world, only three dog breeds are known to have existed in ancient Mesoamerica. These are the Xoloitzcuintli, the similar but harrier Itzcuintli, and the Tlalchichi, a now-extinct short-legged breed also known as the Colima dogs. 

Coyotes, which are also canines, were also commonly depicted in Mesoamerican art and folklore, though because they were not domesticated were feared and revered in almost equal measure.

The Coyoacán neighborhood in México City takes its name from the coyote and is now one of the most popular parts of the megalopolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The role of dogs in Mesoamerican cultures varied between regions and periods, but aside from offering companionship and protection, they were occasionally sacrificed and even eaten, especially in the Aztec culture. 

An anthropomorphic dog in a Mexica codex hands an object to a deity of the underworld. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Like in other parts of the world, it was also not uncommon for dogs to be buried with their owners as the animals were associated with both endings and new beginnings. 

The remains of an excavated xoloitzcuintli buried in the Zapotec region of what today is Oaxaca. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In the Popol Vuh, the K’iche’ Maya creation myth, dogs play several important roles in the narrative. For example, in the story of the hero, twins sacrificed a dog that belonged to the lords of Xibalba (the underworld) and then brought it back to life. 

There is also the case of the dog deity Xólotl, who was venerated as the god of fire and thunder by people, including the Toltec

Sculpture of Xólotl in Mexico City’s National Anthropology Museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Another interesting aspect about Xólotl is that he is the brother of Quetzalcóatl, the feathered serpent deity, as they were both birthed by the virgin goddess Chimalma. 

Representations of Xólotl sometimes depict him simply as a powerful dog, but he is more often than not rendered with anthropomorphic features. Illustration: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The tlalchichi or Colima Dog was hunted to extinction in the XVII century by Spanish conquistadors who considered them to be unclean. 

Given their relatively small size it is likely that these dogs served mostly as companions. Depictions of the Colima dog are plentiful and are often depicted dancing or in cute poses.

A Colima dog-shaped vessel was found during excavations at Monte Albán, Oaxaca. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Reproductions of famous Colima dog figures continue to be produced today and are often seen displayed in people’s homes.

Unlike the Colima dog, the larger and more resourceful Xoloitzcuintli has managed to survive.

Frida, a female hairless Xoloitzcuintli was much loved by locals of Mérida before her death last year. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán. 

Despite the common belief that all Xoloitzcuintli are hairless, this is in fact not the case. It just so happens that the hairless variety has become so popular that their furry counterparts get much less attention. 

A particularly cute ceramic vessel of a Mesoamerican dog today at Oaxaca’s archaeology museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As purebreds, hairless Xoloitzcuintli are fairly sought after they don’t often go for under 500 USD.

Depiction of a Xoloitzcuintli found in an XVII century Spanish chronicle. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In recent decades the popularity of the Xoloitzcuintli has exploded, with thousands of specimens now in Europe, especially Sweden and Russia. 

A whistle with a dog’s head was found during excavations in Tenochtitlan. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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