Buried Dogs were divine ‘escorts’ for ancient Americans

Hundreds of prehistoric dogs found buried throughout the south-western 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 jewellery, 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.

Fugate’s database indicates that dog burials were most common between 400 BCE and 1100 CE. “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.

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. 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.

Source: National Geographic News

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