Pre-Hispanic Dogs in Mexican Culture

2017-jan-pics-2016-12-22-at-7-47-24-amBy Julie Etra

Dogs have been a part of Mexican culture for centuries, and I am not talking about perros callejeros, or street dogs. They came along with the first human beings during their migration to the western hemisphere from Asia, so yes, they were already here when the Spaniards arrived. And these migrant settlers bred their dogs and developed unique lineages with unique traits. Few of these breeds survive to the present time, just the Xolo described below, and the Chihuahua. DNA studies conducted on dog fossils by paleozoologist Valadez Azúa verified their common origin with the ancient dogs of Eurasia. However, the fossil remains found in America have variations in their genetic material produced by the geographic isolation of the continents.

One breed dates back centuries to the Aztec empire, known as Xoloitzcuintle, from the Nahuatl word for dog. In Aztec mythology, the god Xolotl was associated with lightning, fire, and death. Also associated with the sunset, Xolotl would guard the Sun as it traveled through the underworld every night. I have seen these dogs in Huatulco and was unaware of their extensive history, incorrectly assuming they were a recent phenomenon. They vary in popularity and are well known for their desirable characteristics such as loyalty, happiness and hairlessness. In August of 2016, they were named a Symbol of Cultural Heritage of Mexico City.

The chihuahua is also uniquely Mexican and the breed is regarded as the Mexican ancestor of the American Kennel Club (AKC) designated Chihuahua. Techichi were local village dogs, known as far back as the Toltecs (9th century AD), although pots from Colima showing similar dogs date back to 300 BC.

Dogs were a particularly important component of Mayan societies; raised on corn (maize) and slaughtered for consumption at about one year of age. They were also used in hunting. Being fed maize is pertinent, since maize was sacred and the Mayans believed humans were made from maize. As in other Mesoamerican cultures, dogs were also used in sacrifices. They played a major role in Mayan literature; associated with death and led humans into the Underworld. The dog is sometimes depicted carrying a torch in the surviving Maya codices. Dogs were found buried alongside humans in graves as well as in royal residences, presumably to guide their owners to the afterlife.

Other Mexican cultures linked dogs to the cycles of rain and agriculture. In the city of Teotihuacán, north of present day Mexico City, it was customary to accompany the dead with a slaughtered dog, the earliest example dating back to 3550 BC. This was also practiced in Chupécuaro in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Even today some Mexicans have dogs because they still have the belief that they will help them “cross the river after death.”

We have been adopted by Tope, a perro callejero. He comes over 3-4 times a week for salchichas, croquetas (dry dog food), water, love and safety. A pretty boy with hazel eyes. But we don’t expect him to take us anywhere, although in DOG we trust.

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