Articles

THE COLIMA DANCING DOGS

Archaeologists have estimated that domesticated dogs have been in the southern and western portions of Mexico for maybe 3,000 years. These ancient canines are still found in western areas and some varieties are pretty much unchanged since those prehistoric times.  Known today as the Mexican Hairless, these dogs played two important roles for the archaic people – those roles being food and as guides into heaven. Ceramic effigies of these short plump animals were made by the natives of Colima beginning around 2,000 years ago and later by the Zapoteca, Mayan, Toltec and Aztec people.  Speculation is that the dogs were purposely fattened and eaten at ceremonial feasts by the nobles, priests and warriors but not by the common men and women.  During the Late Formative Period, 200 BC to AD 300, in West Mexico, the natives dug deep shaft tombs in the earth for interment of deceased.  These shafts were filled, alongside the bodies of the dead, with ceramic vessels of various types and almost all the burial shafts had ceramic canines, many of which were enjoined pairs that are called dancing dogs.

Until the 1950’s, most archaeologists and historians believed that there was nothing of significance to find in West Mexico.  But the area villagers knew that was not true. Prior to that time, those local artifact diggers, called moneros, legally excavated most of the shaft graves in Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit and sold the ceramic art to Mexican buyers who, in turn, sold the vessels in Mexico, Europe and the United States.  During the 1950’s, though, the scholars did discover this ancient artistry but alas, it was too late for much in the way of scientific research.  The first un-touched tomb dug by archaeologists was not until 1993, so all the multitude of vessels found prior to that came with no scientific information.  But that made the art no less rare and beautiful – especially the dogs.

These Colima hollow ceramic dogs are the oldest and most enigmatic canine effigies found in North America. They were made, in what is called the Comala style, from maybe a few centuries BC until perhaps as late as AD 1,000 in West Mexico.  Called Xoloitzcuintle by the Aztecs, which was derived from the name of the Lord of the Underworld Xolotl, these ceramic canines supposedly accompanied and guided deceased person’s souls into the journey through the Underworld to reach the Upper World or heaven.

The Colima dog vessels vary in sizes from miniature lengths of only a few inches to more than twenty inches long and/or tall.  They have short almost pug-like faces, pointed ears and stout erect tails. They were made in various poses including simply standing, to curled in a sleeping position, to being mothers with pups and, of course, dancing pairs.  But ceremonial dancing may or may not have been the reason these canine duos were actually made.  Some scholars believe they are shown in a fighting mode ( which may be correct since most show barred teeth) while others believe that they show one old dog, often with incised lines to symbolize age, transmitting pertinent knowledge of life to a younger dog.  They vary in colors from dark mahogany red to pale orange and many show a deep black/brown manganese oxide patina on their outer surface because the abundance of the mineral manganese in the soil of the region.  Some of these vessels were incised with lines, maybe to indicate age, but also a few of the cuts are geometric in shapes of circles, triangles and squares, which may have had religious meanings to the ancient ceramists. Most Colima dogs were extremely well made and very realistic and most had highly burnished bodies, though heavy mineral patination, as mentioned above, may obscure this ancient polish. Probably many thousands of these effigies were made during the ancient period but most of these are now in museums and private collections through out the world and finding authentic ancient examples is a difficult task.  But they are still being produced in Colima and sold in gift shops around the state (if one simply wants a modern example of this ancient art) and on the internet as ancient pottery canine effigies - so beware if you want to purchase.  But for whatever reason they were made those ancient millennia ago, be it to show fighting, dancing, imparting dog wisdom or for all or none of these assumptions, these rotund little symbolic domesticates will probably always be known as the Colima Dancing Dogs.

 

REFERENCES:

 

Furst, Jill L. & Peter T. Furst                                      1979

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Lumholtz, Carl                                                            1902

            UNKNOWN MEXICO

Meyer, Carl                                                                 1977

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            TRAFFIC IN WORKS OF ART

Reynolds, Richard D.                                                 1993

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Townsend, Richard F., Editor                                                1998

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            PAST

Von Winning, Hasso                                                   1974

            THE SHAFT TOMB FIGURES OF WEST MEXICO