Itzquintle and Techichi

I love to muse on American dog prehistory. What genes did the early dogs bring with them?  Were they primarily dogwolves, not much changed from the wolf in looks, except for size? (It appears small dogs were cultivated from the very earliest days- probably from small Middle Eastern wolves as their wolf stock.)

Did they bring manifest examples of the most common dog variations from the wolf? Or were they buried in the genome until after they settled down in villages and had a higher than average amount of familial breeding which brought 2 recessives together more often? It does seem that short legs and dwarfed legs both appeared in Mexican dogs where they were recorded in pottery. But, so far, I have not encountered any pre-C art with any dropped ears in dogs. Not one. That doesn’t mean they didn’t crop up, they probably did, but no one cultivated  dogs for floppy ears as they did with the hairless dogs and the tiny dogs.

Down in the Mexican lands, several dog words quickly crept into European descriptions of Mexican dogs. The first was “Itzquintle” which translates from Aztec or Nahuatl, as “dog”. Itzquintles were the regular dogs of the Aztecs. They were generally up to 40 pounds, which was more than a lot of the poorer people could afford to feed. It is hard to find accurate information about the dog food trade, because people don’t want to hear about dog eating and dog eaters, let alone study it, but it appears that the food dogs were smaller than the standard hunting dog- maybe 15-20 pounds. These food dogs also had at least some animals with short legs in their ranks. The reasons the short legs would be preferred by the dog farmers include the lessened mobility of such dogs and therefore a lessened need for exercise, making them more tender. So selection for short legs was a commercial, business, choice.

Diego Rivera records a dog food market in one of his murals. In a city like the Aztec Capitol, farmers came in from the countryside to sell fresh, plump, juicy, fat little dogs, so obviously, they had major puppy farms. They also kept the Hh gene in play because hairless dogs were an advantage as food dogs, plus, they were considered Xolo-Itzquintles, or dogs that belonged to Xolotl, himself a Dog. Xolotl represented the underworld, and was the guide after death through the underworld, but also the patron of any grotesque variations on the usual. So hairless dogs qualified, as did the very short legged ones and would have included flat faces, if such ever showed up in their populations. Probably floppy ears, too. The Xolo dogs were sacrificial as well as food dogs, which I presume is also a sacrifice in and of itself. Some were used in various kinds of healing modalities, especially for old people before they became the after-death guide for the person.

I know I mention the fact that dogs were often food in the Americas. In a way, it makes total sense for frugal humans to eat any fresh meat, rather than throw it to the dogs. Also, dogs multiply almost like rabbits. You could count on every female breeding every cycle and having puppies. Each family would soon have a surplus of dogs, each one with how to get as much food as possible on their minds, plus fighting and breeding. We all know what dogs can be like.

With this ongoing surplus, what did they do? They pick the dogs that they like the best and eat the rest. I think this was a very effective method of, 1. providing a dependable protein source among people who had no chickens or pigs, beef or lamb and 2. animal population control.

I have come to realize that we have vastly underestimated the facility of the Mexica, or Nahuatl peoples in dog breeding. A couple of years ago in the LA Times there was a brief mention that some wolf hybrid bones had been uncovered near Mexico City in a format that suggested they were purposefully bred by a group of Aztec warriors. this allowed archeologists to confirm that previously found depictions were of wolves. Almost as an afterthought, the article mentioned that other bones were found from coyote/dog crosses, and coyote/dog/wolf crosses. This shows me they thought they knew what they were doing as dog breeders. Humans were in control of these mixes- at least in some places and some of the time.  Peoples of the New World bred for a range of dogs for various purposes, just as Old World people did, even if the purposes were different at first glance.

Photo: A wolf-dog jawbone found in the Quetzalcoatl pyramid in Teotihuacan, Mexico. Credit: Raul Valdez / European Pressphoto Agency

The Aztecs had another word for dogs, “techichi”, which also translates as “dog”, but what it means is, the little dogs of the Chichimeca. Actually, translate that as, “the worthless little curs of the barbarians”. I have traced the techichi dogs in other articles, so my main addition here is to note that the Aztecs had two words for dog, one for their own dogs and another for the little dogs of outsiders. The Spaniards only managed to note these two names or probably two groups of dogs.


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