After months without rain in the Valley of Mexico, divine measures were in order to ensure the crop would be bountiful and that the villagers could eat. So the Tlaxcaltec priests gathered people together and called for hairless dogs to be sacrificed at the main temple and eaten as an offering to the gods. Was this ritual, described in a 16th-century codex, the original legend of the Xoloitzcuintli dog?
New studies show that all the world’s hairless dogs have a common ancestor. Anthropologists believe that the Xoloitzcuintli — the dogs’ Nahuatl name; they’re commonly known as the Mexican hairless — were the original breed of bald canine, dating back 2,000 to 3,000 years. They now make fine pets around the world, including as far away as China.
After nearly going extinct, the hairless pooches enjoyed renewed popularity in the 20th century, and with their new cultural status — Diego Rivera included them in his murals, for example — emerged in a slew of legends and folklore. The dog was a delicacy enjoyed by Aztec kings, say some amateur historians, and the Spaniards ate them nearly to extinction. Others claim they were nothing less than sacred to the indigenous people of Mexico as spiritual guides, companions and healers, as portrayed in Pixar’s Oscar-winning animated film Coco. But where do facts end and legends begin?
“I’ve seen their remains in [archaeological] trash piles of food, as companions of the deceased, as animals sacrificed in certain ceremonies or diverse rituals,” says Raúl Valadez, an anthropologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and author of several books about Xolos.
Ceramic Xolos and their remains have been discovered in ancient graves throughout Mexico. But, according to the evidence, the hairless breed wasn’t necessarily revered — or eaten — any more or less than any other dog breed, Valadez says. Much of the folklore surrounding Xolos is attributable to their association with death and fascination with the Aztecs’ grisly sacrificial rituals and purported cannibalism.
One creation myth holds that the god Quetzalcoatl was led across the river separating this life from the next by a reddish-brown hairless dog. The feathered serpent god of creation returned to the living side of the waterway with the bones of ancestors from the underworld from which he created humankind. The dogs were believed to guide the dead across the same river and were thus sometimes buried alongside their humans.
After Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived to Mexico in 1519, he was astounded by the sophistication of the Aztec empire’s capital, Tenochtitlán, to which no city in Europe could compare, as he wrote in his letters to King Charles V. The Aztecs had aqueducts, sewage systems, marketplaces full of riches and far-flung trade routes up and down the Americas. But one of the things that most impressed Cortés was the ancient Mexicans’ domestication of dogs, which the Spaniards found delicious, according to his letters.
Though Cortés wrote of ancient Mexico’s marketplaces, where “fowls and pheasants in cages, partridges and dogs of the species they raise to eat (and which are exceedingly good)” were sold, he never mentioned the hairless breed specifically in his letters to the king. Modern-day breeders inflate the legends to make the dogs more desirable pets, says Valadez. The myth that the Xolos were a special food of Aztec royalty is simply incorrect, he notes. It was in fact turkey and fish that comprised their main sources of meat, according to the Florentine Codex, a 16th-century manuscript that described the foods of Aztec elite.
Diego Muñoz Camargo’s History of Tlaxcala, another codex written during colonization, described the ceremony where hairless dogs were sacrificed to appeal to the gods for rain. Because it is the only known account of such practices, says Valadez, the codex could be the source of the misconceptions surrounding the dogs as a major food source of indigenous Mexicans.
Another legend says that Mexican hairless dogs could detect sickness or injury. Surprisingly, this may be one of the legends about the breed that holds up. Because a dog’s body temperatures is on average 2 degrees warmer than that of a human’s, the breed was used as live hot water bottles and bed warmers, cuddling up with their owners to relieve aches and pains. Their medicinal use has been verified from Mexico to Argentina, says Valadez.
Perhaps due to their cozy qualities, Xolos did gain popularity as the Aztec empire expanded trade routes and even more so once colonialism began the globalization of the New World. They were given to chiefs and rulers as honorary gifts, says Valadez. By A.D. 1100 or 1200, Xolos had arrived in Central and South America, becoming prized possessions of the elite in the Mayan and Inca empires. In the 18th century, the dogs arrived in Cuba with exiled Mayans, and Charles Darwin referenced the breed in his notes from South America.
These days pet owners love Xolos for their affectionate nature and goofy playfulness, which can border on neurotic if they don’t get enough attention. But whether you find the bald beasts ugly or cuddly, magical or appetizing, their mystery remains largely unsolved.