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Buried Dogs Were Divine "Escorts" for Ancient Americans

Anne Casselman
for National Geographic News
April 23, 2008
 
Hundreds of prehistoric dogs found buried throughout the southwestern United States show that canines played a key role in the spiritual beliefs of ancient Americans, new research suggests.

Throughout the region, dogs have been found buried with jewelry, alongside adults and children, carefully stacked in groups, or in positions that relate to important structures, said Dody Fugate, an assistant curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Fugate has conducted an ongoing survey of known dog burials in the area, and the findings suggest that the animals figured more prominently in their owners' lives than simply as pets, she said.

"I'm suggesting that the dogs in the New World in the Southwest were used to escort people into the next world, and sometimes they were used in certain rituals in place of people," Fugate said.

To conduct her research, Fugate collected data on known dog burials and urged her archaeologist colleagues to note when canine remains were found during excavations.

"I have a database now of almost 700 dog burials, and a large number of them are either buried in groups in places of ritual or they're buried with individual human beings," she said.

Many of the burials are concentrated in northwestern New Mexico and along the Arizona-New Mexico border, she said (see map).

"All of that area was full of doggy people," she said.

She reported her findings at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Vancouver, Canada, last month.

1,900 Years of Burials

Fugate's database indicates that dog burials were most common between 400 B.C. and A.D. 1100.

"The earlier the [human] burial, the more likely you are to have dog in it," Fugate said.

By the 1400s and 1500s the practice of burying people with dogs had stopped. Indeed, she noted, today's Pueblo and Navajo Indians believe it is improper to bury dogs.

What the ancient dogs looked like is an open question, she said, but their remains suggest that they were far more diverse than was previously believed.

Fugate has seen remains of ancient canines with floppy ears and pointed ears, long tails and curly tails, small builds and lanky ones.

There were even white ones, found buried on the Arizona-Utah border, whose fur was used to weave ritual garb, she noted.

"They were a motley crew," she summed up.

Archaeologists' Best Friend?

Susan Crockford is a zooarchaeologist at Canada's University of Victoria who has studied dog breeds in the Pacific Northwest.

She agreed that dog remains have often been overlooked during archaeological excavations.

Archaeologists tend to examine animal bones at excavation sites with an eye to what humans were eating, rather than what their relationships with dogs were like, she said.

"Because dogs are very seldom come across in a way that suggests they were used for food, they tend to get dismissed as being not very significant … so they tend to not be reported in very much detail," Crockford said.

Crockford suggested that dogs' spiritual role was among their most important functions in the region, second perhaps to their value as hunting or herding companions.

"Basically [ritual dog burial] is a pattern that's found around the world, and [Fugate]'s doing some really important work in documenting in detail the instances of that phenomena in her part of the world," Crockford said.

(See related photo: "Dog Mummies Found in Ancient Peru Pet Cemetery" [September 25, 2006].)

For her part, Fugate said the data she is collecting will give dogs their day as key players in understanding the past.

"Not thinking that dogs might have had a religious relationship [with people] as well means that you're leaving out a chunk of [ancient] religion," she said.

"If [you make that assumption], you are losing enormous amounts of information about the ritual context and the mindset of these people."
 

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