Old Friends: The Dog/People Connection
in the Americas
by Dody Fugate
Dogs first came into the Western Hemisphere with people (or the other way around). With those people there were at least three kinds of dogs: big ones, medium-sized ones and small ones. There was no AKC in those days so we don’t have official breed names for them, but they were here.
The strongest evidence is that both the first people and the first dogs came from northern Asia and that the dogs were related to a small wolf named Canus Lupis Chanco, the Chinese short-nosed wolf. We have good DNA evidence that all dogs came from wolves, but which wolves and how long ago remain subjects of heated debate. In any case they wandered into the American Southwest, probably with the big dogs carrying packs and the smaller dogs hanging out.
The first people to arrive we call Paleo-Indians. (We had to call them something.) I was once asked what a Paleo-Indian dog looked like. I had to reply that we don’t even know what the Paleo-Indians looked like, never mind their dogs. The Paleo-Indians hunted big game, which was still around back then, and they also gathered lots of plants. So what did their dogs do? Well, if you were hunting mammoths and mastodons it was probably useful to have your dog keep the thing occupied while you attempted to stick a spear into it. Dogs had several other functions, some we seldom think about. They were, of course, guards, companions, and bed warmers. They kept mice out of the seed supply. As humans always accumulate lots of trash, including spoiled or scrap food and, yes, fecal material, dogs have functioned universally as the ‘garbage patrol’. They removed stuff that might otherwise have harbored or encouraged the spread of disease.
Unfortunately, almost the only evidence we have for these Paleo-Indians are their dart points, so we know very little about them. But, it is possible that for them dogs were also guides on spiritual journeys as well as on more mundane trips.
The large animals got scarce around 6,000 to 5,000 BC, and humans shifted to eating more plants and smaller animals. This period, known as the Archaic, lasted to around 900 AD. There were three varieties of dogs at this time: the large Pueblo dog, which was about the size of a Border Collie, the Short Nosed Pueblo dog about the size of a spaniel, and the Small Pueblo dog around the size of a large terrier. Some mummified dogs have been found, the most famous being at ‘White Dog Cave’ where a man, a woman, and a child were buried with two dogs. One of the dogs was white, similar to a border collie (he was originally yellow but 2,000 years has bleached him some), and the other was a small black and white spaniel-size dog.
We have more information about how Archaic people lived because they left more garbage behind, and the quantity of their trash increased as time passed. They also left us pictographs and petroglyphs on rock outcrops, clues to what they believed. There are figures at the Fremont site in Utah that suggest shamans going on what we call ‘spirit journeys’ took their dogs along. How do we know that these are images of dogs? They have curled tails. Only the domestic dog has a curled tail. All other canids have straight tails that they can raise only a short distance above their backs. We also find Anasazi rock art that shows dogs accompanying people with spears or darts who are hunting deer and big horn sheep.
Dogs may have carried burdens when people first came into the Southwest, but we don’t find any evidence for this practice here in the Southwest, such as the broken fangs and arthritic backs and necks found in Plains Indian pack dogs. Why, I am not sure. All over the world dogs have, at one time or another, been associated with doorways (or openings) and death, and they were certainly associated with these things among the Pueblo people. Formal ‘dog burials’ are often found near openings in pit houses, especially those that appear to have been built for ritual use. This practice was common across the early Southwest.
Dogs were also buried with people. In the older habitations in the Southwest we find dog/human burials, but this practice falls from fashion after AD 1280 – 1300. From this time onward we begin to find more evidence of dogs being consumed. In early America there was a long tradition of dogs being eaten as a health or spiritual remedy. In Mexico and Central America, small spotted dogs, called ‘Techichi’ by the Aztecs, were bred and consumed as part of a regular diet. Special small dogs were also raised on corn and used as sacrifices when humans were not available. Among the Maya and Aztecs of Mexico and Central America and among some of the people of South America you couldn’t get to the Land of the Dead without this dog.
Dog hair was used in textiles by the Pueblo people from Archaic times to the arrival of the Spanish. Spanish records mention the big dogs the Zuni people kept in their houses for their wool. From preserved hanks of fur and dog-hair textiles we know the colors included blond, white, brown, ‘Irish Setter’ red, sable, and spotted.
The four ‘doggiest areas’ of the early Southwest, where dogs played the biggest cultural role, are: the Rio Grande area, the San Juan River drainage, the Little Colorado and Rio Puerco drainages, and Southern Arizona around modern Tucson and Phoenix. In time the imported European breeds slowly overwhelmed the Pueblo breeds, though some pre-Columbian examples still exist in Mexico and South America. And dogs with ancient traits may still be found in some very secluded parts of Arizona.
Dody Fugate is Asst. Curator of Archaeological Research Collections at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture’s Laboratory of Anthropology with an iinterest in prehistoric Southwestern dogs.
To me it is a strangely appealing and even elevating thought that the age-old convenant between man and dog was “signed” voluntarily and without obligation by each of the contracting parties. - Konrad Lorenz
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