Xoloitzcuintli: The Ancient Hairless Dogs That Guided The Dead Into The Underworld
October 13, 2018|María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
This funny-looking, hairless breed was considered a gift from the gods. How much do you know about this Mexican hairless dog?
In all probability, the most famous Xoloitzcuintli in recent times is the adorable Dante from Disney Pixar’s Coco. He's a faithful stray dog that follows young Miguel in his quest in the Land of the Dead and eventually turns into his spirit animal. Coco's producers spent about six years studying Mexican culture in order to create a realistic representation of Mexico, and one of the aspects that impressed them the most was the famous Xoloitzcuintli, also known as Xolo or Mexican hairless dog. Not only is this striking-looking breed one of the few remaining direct links to pre-Columbian times, but their history and their peculiar characteristics are also fascinating.
The Xolo is thought to be one of the first dog breeds of dogs in the world. Historians believe that they reached the American continent accompanying the first human beings who crossed the Bering Strait. Now, the most ancient archaeological evidence there is of the Xolo dates back three thousand years, which is why they played such a big role in these civilizations. In that way, although there’s no evidence why, hairless dogs are some of the most ancient breeds. The Xolo is just one of the three known ones along with the Peruvian hairless dog, and the Chinese Crested Dog, all of them quite similar. According to a study by Elaine Ostrander and Heidi Parker (US National Institutes of Health), these breeds don’t share genes with any registered dogs, which only adds to the mythology and mystery that surround them.
The Xolo, in particular, played a very important role in the main mythologies of the pre-Columbian civilizations, including the Aztecs and the Maya. For them, Xolos were created by Xolotl, the god of lightning and death, from a piece of the Bone of Life. Its purpose was to guard humanity in life, and then guide them after death to reach Mictlan, the Underworld. Xolos were thought to have spiritual powers that kept bad spirits away. Little Xolo figurines have been found in many tombs, and in some excavations, the remains of these dogs also accompany their owners, which supports the theory that some dogs were sacrificed, so that they would accompany their owner to the Land of the Dead.
Not only was the Xoloitzcuintli a very powerful creature that protected people, but they were also thought to have medicinal properties. The Spanish conquistadors were so surprised by the relationship between people and Xolos that they even wrote about these unique hairless dogs in their chronicles. According to Bernardino de Sahagún, the Aztecs tucked their Xolos inside their blankets at night to keep them warm. Because they don't have hair, these dogs can’t cool themselves down like regular dogs do, and for that reason, they produce more heat. This warmth was thought to be medicinal and used to treat joint pains and muscular ailments like arthritis or rheumatism.
Not only were they thought to cure just by being next to humans, but also their meat was considered healthy and tasty. Back in the times of Mesoamerica, turkeys and Xolos were the only domesticated animals. These two species were bred carefully, so that their consumption wouldn't endanger their existence. Mostly, Xolos were eaten at religious ceremonies because of the powers they were thought to have, but they were also considered a delicacy, and their meat was served at feasts. When the Spaniards arrived, they introduced the local communities to other animals, but unfortunately, this also happened the other way around, and the conquerors brought the Xolos near extinction.
Xolos in modern times
There are only about 4,000 registered Xolos in the world. They became very popular in Mexico in the 1920s when artistic power couple Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera adopted a few and made them part of their signature "look." However, it wasn’t until 1956 that the breed was officially recognized by the rest of the world. Thanks to these two factors, the Xolos' popularity increased, making them not only one of the most exclusive breeds ever, due to the difficulties to breed them, but also quite symbolic in their historical and cultural relevance.
Their distinctive lack of hair is actually a recessive gene in this breed. Actually, in every litter, only a few puppies will come out hairless. This is the reason why not all Xolos are registered as such: hairlessness is what makes the breed exclusive and unique. Besides that, there are still tons of isolated indigenous towns and communities where it’s believed Xolos are still around, but they aren’t counted in the worldwide registry.
Besides all the historical and mythological facts that make them such great creatures, Xoloitzcuintlis are one of the noblest and most loyal breeds in the world. They’re considered among the first breeds in the world because of their closeness to people and how they were so easily domesticated over three thousand years ago. As you saw in Coco, Xolos are really like Dante, really protective creatures that give all their love and loyalty to their owners no matter what.
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