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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

home : features : features September 14, 2014

6/19/2012 1:07:00 PM
Prehistoric Arizonans and their pets
What Old Dogs tell us about people
Arizona State Museum, U of A, Jannelle WeaklyA Puerco black-on-red piece from Nutria Canon, N.M., and a Puerco black-on-white are indicative of a pottery style found in the area surrounding the Zuni pueblo. They depict a dog curled into and as part of a vessel of some kind.
Arizona State Museum, U of A, Jannelle Weakly

A Puerco black-on-red piece from Nutria Canon, N.M., and a Puerco black-on-white are indicative of a pottery style found in the area surrounding the Zuni pueblo. They depict a dog curled into and as part of a vessel of some kind.
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Dogs are believed to have come to the Americas along with the first humans, approximately 15,000 years ago. As working pets they provided predator control, served as guards, beast of burden and were instrumental in keeping early villages clear of trash.

Steve Ayers
Staff Reporter

The role of dogs in the lives of humans is as diverse as the cultures that keep them.

They have served as protectors -- in this life as well as the next. They have served as hunting companions, scavengers and sidekicks. And in many of cultures, on many an occasion, they even served as dinner.

Archaeologists scraping their way through layers of southwestern prehistory have unearthed a trove of evidence showing that man and dog have coexisted in this harsh and arid corner of the planet for several thousands of years.

It is assumed that dogs followed the earliest hunters across the Bering land bridge, whenever it was that man made his first journey from the old world to the new.

When they first arrived in the southwest is anyone’s guess.

The earliest evidence of human-dog interaction in what is now Arizona was uncovered at Las Capas, an archaeological site along the Santa Cruz River in southern Arizona.

There, along with the oldest irrigation canals discovered north of central Mexico, archaeologist unearthed a partial burial, two skulls and two partial skulls of what is believed to have been a medium to large sized dog, or possibly a coyote.

Adjacent to Las Capas, at the Costello-King Site, the skull of a domesticated dog was discovered in a pit. It too belonged to a dog of the same build as the ones at Las Capas.

Both sites are dated between 1200 and 800 BC.

The Los Pozos site, also near the Santa Cruz River but occupied sometime between 400 BC and 50 AD contained three domestic dog burials, two adults and one puppy. The site contains hundreds of pit house structures, many of which burned.

According to Jennifer Waters, a faunal investigator with Desert Archaeology Inc., the two adult dogs appear to have been placed where they were found, one in a home and one on top of a burned house, at the time the homes were abandoned.

In 1916, at a cave in northeastern Arizona, two prominent archaeologists, Samuel Guernsey and Alfred Kidder found two mummified dogs that date from about 400 BC. The fact the bodies were mummified indicates the animals were of some significance, but what that was can only be speculated.

The largest trove of dog burials from the same period was found at a site called La Playa in Sonora, Mexico, where 32 burials were discovered.

Waters says it is difficult to say how prevalent dogs were among the earlier cultures.

“We don’t have a lot of burials so we don’t have evidence for a lot of dogs. It doesn’t necessarily mean there weren’t a lot of them around early on. But by the classical period, they were certainly burying a lot more of their dogs,” she says.

Waters cites discoveries of dog burials at the Yuma Wash site near Tucson (32 dog burials), Javier Bridge Site (10) and Pueblo Grande in Phoenix as evidence that dogs played a central role in human life by the classical period.

The classical period for the American Southwest ran between 1150 and 1450. It is the same time Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle were built in the Verde Valley and the Hohokam culture peaked in the Phoenix valley.

Dogs appear to have served the Hohokam well, and the Hohokam appear to have reciprocated.

At Pueblo Grande, the signature habitation site for the Hohokam, archaeologists have uncovered 15 dog burials, all outside of the habitation area but adjacent to human burials. The notion that the dogs are buried along side human remains indicates dogs were highly valued by the Hohokam.

Six intact figurines shaped like dogs with erect ears and slightly curled tails were also unearthed at Pueblo Grande.

Dozens of other sites in Arizona from the classical period have also revealed that 900 years ago, you would likely find plenty of dogs roaming the landscape along side their human partners.

Todd Bostwick, director of the Verde Valley Archaeological Center, says it doesn’t take too much expertise to realize that dogs would have been quite useful to the early people.

“There are several instances of dogs intentionally buried with children. It would indicate they were pets -- although I’d bet they were working pets,” he says.

According to Bostwick, early desert farmers would have had seen them as guards, primarily.

“They chase after ground squirrels, rabbits and other critters. The biggest challenge for early farmers was all the animals that wanted to eat their crop before they did,” he says. “The also have night vision, which would have made them excellent sentries.”

Bostwick says that evidence indicates they may have also served as early sanitation engineers.

“The Hohokam were orderly in how they kept their villages clean. Obviously you don’t live in a place for 1,000 years and not have some kind of sanitary rules.

“Dogs will eat anything. They can be quite disgusting at times, but in this sense they would have been very useful picking anything that was edible out of the garbage mounds,” says Bostwick.

As for dogs in the Verde Valley, Coconino National Forest Archaeologist Peter Pilles says he knows of no evidence of burials or pottery or other artifacts unearthed in the area.

But he says, because we have no evidence does not mean the Sinagua culture did not have and keep dogs.

“I can’t think of any dog burials in the Verde, but there sure have to be some, I would think,” he says.

Whatever took place in ancient Arizona as far as the relationship between man and his dog, we can be sure it was a much better fate for the dog if he was raised here than with a human master further to the south.

From the Maya on, dogs were food in Mexico.

“Chihuahuas were raised to be eaten by the elite. Mexican hairless were bred that way so they could be roasted,” says Bostwick. “On the other hand I know of no skeletons or remains found in Arizona that would indicate the Hohokam, or any of the other cultures, ate their dogs.”

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