The Aztecs were dog people. They were in awe of the jaguar for its stealth and fighting prowess, but for domestic companionship, they chose dogs, not cats.
And their dogs didn't look much like your typical house mutts. Known in English as the Mexican hairless dog, the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs called their breed the Xoloitzcuintli (pronounced show-loh-its-queen-tli) after Xolotl, a god with the head of a dog who helped the dead in their passage to the underworld. (Xolotl was also the beleaguered twin of Quetzacoatl and ultimately turned himself into the amphibious axolotl, but that's another story.)
A Mexican hairless dog called Izzy Frittata.
Source: Xugardust via Compfight cc
The Aztecs exhibition at Melbourne Museum features a dog statue carved from stone in about 1500. This little dog has the half-closed eyes and raised head of a dog receiving a hearty scratch under the chin. It seems an affectionate portrait of a much-loved friend. However, when the Aztec owner of a Xoloitzcuintli died, their dog was sacrificed to accompany them on the journey ahead. This sounds horrifying to dog lovers today but the Aztecs also raised dogs for food and had no qualms about putting them to death.
Sculpture of a dog about 1500. When a person died, if they had a dog it was sacrificed after the funeral. The dog would then guide its owner’s soul through the nine levels of the underworld.
Image: Michel Zabe
Source: © Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH)
Almost unknown in Australia, Xoloitzcuintlis–or Xolos–remain quite rare in Mexico and the USA because they nearly vanished completely after the arrival of the Spanish in Central America. Believing them to have healing properties, people in remote Mexican villages sheltered these sacred dogs and protected them from mixing with other mutts. Accordingly, they survive as one of the oldest breeds, and have been used by geneticists to examine the history of dog domestication. Frida Kahlo kept Xolos and included them in her paintings, helping to boost the popularity of the dogs and save them from another near-extinction in the 20th century.
Pick the real dog! Three Xoloitzcuintli dogs lazing about a statue of this sacred breed in the garden of Museo Dolores Olmedo, Mexico.
Image: Joshua Bousel
Source: joshbousel used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Of course, the most striking feature of the Xoloitzcuintli is its virtual hairlessness, which is caused by a dominant gene. The gene is lethal when inherited twice (homozygous) – a puppy with two copies will not be born alive – while Xolos without a copy of the gene have an ordinary furry coat. Xolos often have missing teeth, probably linked to the same hairlessness gene.
A pile of Xoloitzcuintli puppies
Source: Xugardust used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Links and references:
Vilà C, Maldonado JE, Wayne RK (1999) Phylogenetic relationships, evolution, and genetic diversity of the domestic dog. Journal of Heredity Jan-Feb;90(1):71-7. (PDF, 184 kB)
Cordy-Collins, Alana (1994) An unshaggy dog story. Natural History Vol. 103 Issue 2, p34
Hairless dogs compete at Reliant Show, Houston Chronicle, July 20 2012