The Xoloitzcuintle, also known as the Mexican hairless dog, is a breed with a rich history that spans millennia and continents. Its existence dates back 3000 years to the Mayan and Aztec civilizations Some of the artifacts and clay pottery depicting this breed have been recovered from the tombs of Colima, Mayan, and Aztec Indians.
Name and Mythology
The name Xoloitzcuintli is believed to be named after the Aztec god of the underworld, Xolotl. The Aztecs considered the Xolo sacred, and invested them with mystical healing abilities. The breed’s full name, Xoloitzcuintli, derives from the name of the Aztec god of fire and lightning, Xolotl, as well as “itzcuintli,” the Aztec word for dog.
Role in Ancient Society
Found in three sizes – toy, miniature and standard – this indigenous Mexican dog was said to have been created by Xolotl from a sliver of the Bone of Life from which all humanity sprang. Given this celestial provenance, it’s not surprising that the Xoloitzcuintli had several high-profile roles in Aztec society, the most critical of which was leading the dead to Mictlan, or the underworld1.
Journey to the Underworld
Getting to Mictlan, however, required navigating nine levels with challenges such as mountains that crashed into each other and winds that blew knives. After a process that could take up to four years, weary souls reached a broad and deep river. Awaiting them on those eternal shores – hopefully – were their Xolos, which, on recognizing their masters, would leap into the water to ferry them across. To ensure they were riverside to complete this vital task, dogs were often ritualistically killed and buried or burned alongside their masters1. For those who were poor and did not have the means to own a dog, a pottery statue was used instead.
Here in the world of the living, perhaps the most striking aspect of the Xoloitzcuintli is its hairlessness, though there may be tufts on the top of the head, tip of the tail, and the toes. This unique feature likely led to the belief that the breed has healing properties, able to sense disease and, sometimes, dispel it by snuggling close, like a canine hot-water bottle. Even today, some Xoloitzcuintli owners say their dogs seem to instinctively know if they are hurting, and will lie against the affected spot to offer the benefit of their tough-skinned, heat-radiating bodies.
A 1999 genetic study using mitochondrial DNA found that the DNA sequences of the Xoloitzcuintle were identical to those of dogs from the Old World. In 2018, an analysis of DNA from the entire genome indicated that domesticated dogs entered North America from Siberia for 4,500 years and were isolated for the next 9,000 years. After contact with Europeans, these dogs were replaced by Eurasian dogs and their local descendants. The pre-contact dogs exhibited a unique genetic signature that is now almost gone due to their assimilation into the Eurasian dog gene pool. In 2020, the sequencing of ancient dog genome indicates that in two Mexican breeds the Chihuahua and Xoloitzcuintli derive 4% and 3% of their ancestry from pre-colonial dogs, almost entirely being descended from Eurasian dogs.
In conclusion, the Xoloitzcuintle is a breed with a rich history and cultural significance, deeply intertwined with the mythology and beliefs of the ancient civilizations of Mexico. Today, it continues to be a beloved companion and a symbol of Mexico’s rich heritage.