From the LA Unleashed Blog:
Mexican researchers said Wednesday they have identified jawbones found in the pre-Hispanic ruins of Teotihuacan as those of wolf-dogs that were apparently crossbred as a symbol of the city’s warriors.
The National Institute of Anthropology and History said the jawbones were found during excavations in 2004 and are the first physical evidence of what appears to be intentional crossbreeding in ancient Mexican cultures.
The jawbones were found in a warrior’s burial at a Teotihuacan pyramid. Anthropological studies performed at Mexico’s National Autonomous University indicate the animal was a wolf-dog.
“In oral traditions and old chronicles, dog-like animals appear with symbols of power or divinity,” said institute spokesman Francisco De Anda. “But we did not have skeletal evidence … this is the first time we have proof.”
Wolf- or dog-like creatures appear in paintings at Teotihuacan, but had long been thought to be depictions of coyotes, which also inhabit the region. But archaeologists are now reevaluating that interpretation.
Several jawbones were made into a sort of decorative garment found on the warrior’s skeleton at the 2,000-year-old site north of Mexico City.
The wolf-dog apparently served as a symbol of strength and power.
Dogs and wolves are very similar genetically, and there has been evidence of ancient remains that may show natural crossbreeding.
But archaeologist Raul Valadez said the animal was the result of intentional selection. While the inhabitants of Teotihuacan had dogs, wolves and coyotes, they almost exclusively used wolf-dog bones in the ceremonial arrangement.
Of the bones found, eight were wolf-dog, three were dogs and two were crosses of coyotes and wolf-dogs.
These wolves would have likely been Canis lupus baileyi, which is now extinct in the wild in Mexico. They were actually known to hybridize with domestic dogs as the subspecies became rare in the wild. A whole line of these wolves that was kept at Carlsbad Caverns was euthanized under the suspicion that they were “contaminated” with dog blood. However, it was later found that these wolves had no evidence of dog hybridization in their MtDNA sequences.
This is yet another example of a gene flow between wild and domestic populations of Canis lupus, although the exact wild nature of these wolves is certainly in question. It is possible that these wolves lived in a state of semi-domestication. Historically, it hasn’t been very hard to habituate wolves to people, and it wouldn’t be very hard to breed an habituated wolf to a dog.
Or maybe they were urban wolves, like this one in Romania. Because there is no evidence of these people persecuting the wolves, they would have had more reason to hang around the city and have opportunities to breed with dogs.
The people of Teotihuacan were fairly good animal keepers. There is evidence that they were adept at keeping pumas and jaguars in captivity, so it would not be all that strange that they kept both wolves and coyotes in this manner.
Throughout their long history, dogs have retained some of their genetic diversity through wild blood. Now that wolves have been pushed very far from human societies,and dogs have undergone extensive selective breeding, these differences seem much more extreme than they once were.
But through much of that history, dog and wolf have bred with each other–sometimes intentionally, as seems to be the case here, and sometimes accidentally, as is likely the case with the evolution of black wolves in North America.
These ancient Mexicans worshiped the dog and the wolf. The hybrid was likely much like the character they lauded in the warrior. The warrior was civilized in his manner during times of peace and as savage as a wild animal in times of war. That dichotomy was celebrated when these hybrids were used for these ceremonial arrangements.
Perhaps one could find evidence ancient North American dogs were actually hybrids. It was suggested that the domestic dogs kept by various peoples of the Southeast were nothing more than tamed red wolves. Black red wolves were very common, which is why they had the archaic scientific name Canis niger.
However, all the studies I’ve seen suggest that New World domestic dogs from both the Pre-Columbian and modern era have predominantly or entirely Old World ancestry.
More work needs to be performed in examining the genetics of these New World dogs.
The intentional hybridization of Mexican wolves and domestic dogs at Teotihuacan shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. We have evidence of wolf hybridization in the origin of certain Finnish and Scandinavian breeds. To find archeological evidence of hybridization in Mexico is just more evidence that dogs and wolves do not represent distinct species.
They represent the beautiful and wondrous diversity that is the species we call Canis lupus. From two-pound chihuahuas that fit nicely in handbags to giant bone crushing wolves that lived in Alaska during the Pleistocene, this species has had the ability to occur in some many different shapes and sizes.
The people of Teotihuacan were probably a little amazed when their domestic bitches bred wolves and produced puppies. Such a crossbreeding from such different looking animals would have been fascinating– almost to the point that it would have required a divine explanation.
And once that explanation would have been put in place, it wouldn’t have been very long before some priesthood would come up with a need to use them for ceremonial purposes.
According to Art Daily, some of the remains are from dog-coyote hybrids and to crosses with wolfdogs and coyotes, so intentional wolf and dog crosses were not the only Canis hybrids these people were creating for this purpose.
I strongly disagree with the suggestion in the Art Daily piece that pumas (cougars) are more easily domesticated than wolves. We have no domesticated cougars, but we have hundreds of millions of domestic dogs throughout the world. Not all wolves become status seeking machines in captive situations. Adolph Murie had one named Wags that was basically a golden retriever in wolf form.