Posts Tagged ‘Xoloitzcuintli’


The dog world is always an interesting place to observe human behavior.  A few days ago, someone posted a coated Xoloitzcuintli (“Mexican hairless dog”) on an FB group, and I happened to mention the new evidence about the genetics of this dog breed.

This breed has a strong connection to the Mexica/Aztec identity in Mexico. The dog has a Nahuatl name, and when we discuss the Americas pre-Conquest, the civilization that existed in Mexico  was certainly the equivalent of anything in the Old World.

The mutation that causes hairlessness in these dogs has been traced to Mexico around 4,000 years ago. It is conferred by an incomplete dominant allele, and thus, it was able to spread from Mexico into South America, where hairless village dogs still exist in some areas.  Later, these hairless dogs were crossed with various toy breeds to found what has (laughably) been called “the Chinese crested dog.”

Further, we have really good evidence that shows that the indigenous dogs of the Americas were replaced with a genetic swarm of European dogs. This means that the xoloitzcuintli, though it has this mutation that originated in the Americas, is mostly European dog in its ancestry.

What is even more shocking is that a genome-wide analysis that traced the origins of many dog breeds found that the xolo fits in a clade that includes the German shepherd, the Berger Picard, and the Chinook. When a prick-eared regional Italian sheepdog called a Cane Paratore is added to the analysis, the xolo and the Peruvian hairless dog fit closer to that breed than the GSD and Picardy shepherd.

If one thinks about the history of Mexico, the Spanish became deeply involved in turning Mexico into a great place for herding cattle, sheep, and goats, and it would make sense that the typical dog that would have been brought over would have been an Iberian herding dog that is probably quite closely related to the Cane Paratore.

So more analysis was performed with an emphasis on Italian dog breeds. Some of the clades changed position, but xolos and Peruvian Inca orchid dogs remained in this clade closely related to the German shepherd, the various Italian herding dogs, the Berger Picard, and the Chinook.  The Catahoula leopard dog, a celebrated cur dog from Louisiana that is said to have derived from French and Spanish herding dogs brought over by colonists, were found to be closely related to the xolos.

This means that the dog called the xoloitzcuintli is mostly rough pastoral dog from the Iberian Peninsula, and it is not an ancient American breed.

I mentioned all this information on that Facebook group, and it was as if I blasphemed against the Almighty.

Sadly, we have almost lost an entire lineage of domestic dogs. The Conquest of the Americas and the resulting Columbian Exchange changed the genetic fortunes of humans and animals on these continents.

And though people would love for the xolo to be this untouched pure strain of dog. It simply is not.  In fact, it is very heavily admixed with southern European herding dog to the point that the dog is almost entirely that in ancestry. If that hairless trait were not dominant, it likely would have disappeared in the Mexican village dog population, and there would not have been any suggestion that these dogs were anything special.

So by a fluke of the allele, a mostly European herding dog-derived village dog from Mexico became the ancient dog of the Aztecs.

Yep. I ruined that one, too.

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Boston terrier/xoloitzcuintli (Mexican hairless) crosses!

boston xolos

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A taxidermy of a so-called African hairless dog at the Walter Rothschild Museum in Tring, England.

Breed origin myths have been able to gain a life of their own.

Dog breed historians are often historically illiterate, are prone to nonfalsifiable speculation, and are quite prone to confirmation bias.

Many are also quite prone to flights of fancy, as we have seen with the science fiction writers who think that chihuahuas are derived from fennec foxes.

It’s not just chihuahuas who have a bizarre and probably incorrect origin myth.

The so-called “Chinese crested dog” is said to have originated in China, where they were kept on junks for rodent control and as emergency ration.

This is a very strange story, for there is virtually no record of hairless dogs existing in China. Just this past week, a wandering Chinese crested in China was mistaken for a pig.  Probably the best reason why it was mistaken for a pig is that Chinese crested dogs aren’t actually Chinese.

Over time, this origin myth has faded in certain quarters– only for an even worse one to be contrived.

Pai, my eyes and ears in the hairless dog community, brought it to my attention that certain members of that community were now promoting the theory that Chinese cresteds and other hairless breeds originated in Ancient Egypt.

That’s actually not particularly original, for there are dozens of very poorly reasoned dog origin stories that take place in Ancient Egypt. I’ve heard that dachshunds originated there, even though they are actually a very recent development, and we all hear the nonsense about pharaoh hounds and Ibizan hounds being derived from Egypt’s ancient tesem dogs. There is no evidence to support the origins of any of those dogs in Ancient Egypt, but it’s a fantastic tale that everyone wants to repeat.

But this time, they decided to get a DNA study that supposedly proves the theory.

They have to dig a bit to get a study that fits their preconceived notions, and the one they find is an mtDNA study by Robert Wayne in 1999.

This study was thrown at me– as if I hadn’t read it– to debunk what is the more likely origin for the Chinese crested. The most likely origin is that the Chinese crested was developed in the West by breeding small xolos to fuzzy little lap dogs from Europe. Much of this development happened in the United States at Debra Wood’s Crest Haven kennel, which was in operation in the 1950’s.

Now, this explanation fits another important piece of evidence that was revealed in 2008. Peruvian hairless dogs, the xoloitzcuintli, and the Chinese crested dog all have the same mutation that causes their hairlessness. The mutation first appeared in Mexican dogs  4,000 and then was transmitted to the others via crossbreeding.  Because this trait is semidominant, it is easily transmitted to new dog  populations with minimal crossbreeding.

Which brings us to the Wayne mtDNA study from 1999.

This is one of those studies that suggests a very ancient origin for the domestic dog– 100,000 or more year ago.  I think this might be a bit of an overestimation. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) studies have made some notable errors. They’ve underestimated when savanna and forest elephants in Africa split. They’ve also have suggested that dog originated in southern China, when the nuclear DNA evidence points to Middle Eastern wolves as the primary source for the domestic dog.

So we need to be careful reading too much into mtDNA studies.

However, the point of Wayne’s research into the xolo wasn’t to prove the origin of xolos.  It was to find out if domestic dogs were derived from North American wolves.   In terms of their mtDNA, they are not. They have diverse mtDNA haplotypes, all of which are found in Old World dog breeds. They don’t share mtDNA with Chinese cresteds, which has led some “internet experts” to declare that it means Chinese crested couldn’t be related to xolos.

This shows ignorance about what mtDNA is. Mitochondrial DNA is DNA extracted from the mitochondria of cells.  This DNA has its own genome, but it also only a tiny part of the whole genome. It can be a very biased sample, for a very simple reaon:  it is inherited only via the matriline.  It tells you nothing about paternal inheritance.

So if the hairless trait in Chinese cresteds was introduced via a few male xolos, one could not figure this out using mtDNA.

What’s more, if just a few male xolos were used to develop these strains many generations ago, then the Chinese crested dogs would not have a very close genetic relationship with xolos, even if the hairless mutation had been introduce via a limited number of xolo males.

Also, one needs to be a little bit more skeptical of another aspect of Wayne’s study. Wayne examined only living xolos. Xolos are Latin American dogs, but they aren’t likely entirely of that ancestry. Indeed, it is much more likely is that living xolos are mostly European dog in ancestry, but because the mutation that causes them to be hairless is semidominant, it was able to last within Latin American dog populations, even as the main indigenous dog population became extinct. This trait was able to exist in the same way that black wolves in North America got that mutation from domestic dogs. North American wolves have very little dog ancestry, but at least one black dog did contribute the dominant black gene to their populations. The wolves are almost entirely wolf by now, but the melanism from dogs still exists.

The mtDNA study on living xolos revealed them to be a very diverse breed in terms of their mtDNA sequences– which makes sense. This dog existed as a landrace in Mexico for centuries after the conquest. People bred them to whatever they could find, and the dogs themselves bred with other street and farm dogs. Until recently, the Mexican Kennel Club, allowed hairless dogs from diverse backgrounds to registered as xolos, and over time, different sizes of xolo have been developed. The chances of someone using an African dog– including a basenji– as an outross would have been very high, and the likely use of these outcrosses to produce the xolo means that we need to be skeptical of studies that use living xolos to make generalizations about Native American dogs from the past.

Now, trying to figure this sort of information out from the available evidence is a bit of a challenge. It requires critical thinking and an understanding of how breed formation might happen.

But if you’re using it as evidence that all these hairless dogs came from Africa, you’re in big trouble.

To postulate an African origin for these dogs, you’ve got to figure out a way for these animals to be in Mexico at least 4,000 years ago.

And you can’t do that.

To get that to work, you have create some pseudohistory– maybe the Egyptians came to Mexico!

Never mind that there is no evidence for that at all– and no, please don’t try to claim that the Olmecs were African. There is no evidence for that, except speculation about supposed African features depicted in Olmec artifacts.

Of course, you could get an “ancient astronaut theorist” to come up with some way that allows one to create an African origin for the hairless dogs.

And that would probably be your best bet.

Now, there is some evidence that there were hairless dogs in South Africa, but there is no evidence that they originated there. The Portuguese and Dutch sailors had a connection to Spain’s colonies in the New World, and they would have been able to bring hairless dogs from there to South Africa. Dogs that were imported from South Africa could have been called African hairless dogs or African hairless terrier, which may be a hint that they crossed their hairless dogs with terriers.

All the other theories about the origins of Chinese crested dogs and other hairless dogs appear to be nothing more than flights of fancy or marketing stories that were initially pumped up by dog dealers.

Of course, this origin is far less exotic and fantastic as proposed the Chinese or African origins postulates.

This one is much more parsimonious. The others require assumptions about the historical record that are either impossible to prove or are simply false.


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From Recollections of my sea life … from 1808 to 1830 (1883) by John Harvey Boteler:

Captain Graham sent a party to the village and secured all canoes, so as to prevent the escape of any of the miscreants, and Chadwick some time after was sent over to Cuba for two bloodhounds; they were of a dull leaden colour, had smooth leather-like skins, no hair, the size of a common spaniel, but with longer legs, not very ugly, only very fierce eyes (pg. 116).

These dogs don’t sound like the mastiff-type dogs that were used to catch slaves in Cuba, the West Indies, and the American South.

Indeed, these dogs sound like they are part of the New World dominant hairless dogs that were ubiquitous throughout Latin America.

It is possible that the hairless dogs made it to Cuba before the Spanish conquest, but it is probably more likely that they were introduced to Cuba after Mexico became part of the Spanish Empire.

This dominant hairless trait originated in Mexico 4,000 years ago. All dogs with this gene have some ancestor that was living in Mexico at some point, which means the Chinese crested dog isn’t Chinese. However, the Portuguese and Spanish Empires did spread these dogs throughout the world.

But hairless dogs did make it to South America before the Spanish Conquest. The earliest depictions of hairless dogs in Peru date to 750 A.D., so it might have been possible for hairless dogs to have reached Cuba during the Pre-Columbian Period.  There are references to hairless dogs of Mexico and Cuba, but I cannot find any suggestion that Taino of Cuba had them. The only indigenous breed of Cuba was the so-called “mute dog.”

There are hairless dogs in Cuba today, which may or may not be derived from more modern xoloitzcuinltis.

Hairless dog in Cuba.

(Source for image)

Note the variance in type with this dog and the one pictured above it.

(Source for image)

These dogs are much more robust in build than the typical xoloitzcuintli.

(Source for image)

Although these dogs were not of the type usually called Cuban bloodhounds, they were quite successful in there pursuit of pirates, who were using the Isle of Pines (La Isla de Juventud) as a base to attack British ships in the West Indies. Boteler wrote of these bloodhounds  that they were quite useful after they began to kill pirates in skirmishes, and they began to run and hide from their pursuers:

Several very stirring encounters took place, I have no clear recollection of them as told me by Chadwick, they were every one most thrilling. It was not till after the death of ten or more that the bloodhounds were sent for, and a few more scented out. The last found was the captain, one evening a marine had taken his kettle to a stream among rocks some distance off, and there came upon a man washing the wounded stump of his arm. He started to run, the marine fired and missed, it was late and getting dark but they were sure of him now, and the hounds next morning were put on his scent and instantly took it up and with one sharp bark or yell, silently set off in pursuit. In a short time they were heard baying, and when the party came up there was the captain lying dead and stiff, most likely worn out with fatigue and mental agony as well as exhausted from his wound. What became of the hounds this deponent sayeth not. But what of the schooner itself, where could she be? The “pilot” led the way to the “lagoon” and after picking about with a pike or boat-hook, struck upon the vessel for there she was sunk, her masts cut away; she was raised and turned out a very beautiful craft (pg. 117).

This might be the only account of hairless dogs being used against pirates.

But it is still pretty interesting.

When I first came across this piece in my Google search, I thought it would lead me to Cuban bloodhounds, as we would normally know them in the historical literature.

However, the text revealed a very different story– and a very different kind of dog.




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Several photos of Xoloitzcuintli appear in a LIFE  article entitled “Hairless Dogs Revived.”

The first of these is of a “mongrel” xolo, which the article contends possesses a “squat, awkward figure” :

By contrast, the “purebred” xolo “has graceful lines”:

The “mongrel” dog does remind me of Stitch, but from my understanding, the Mexicans now allow so-called mongrel dogs to be part of the xolo breed. After all, these dogs represented a landrace breed that continued to exist after the conquest. It just bred into the typical village-type dog– which is all that a xolo is. It is a natural, very rustic village-type dog. It just doesn’t have much of a pelt.

By the 1950’s, these dogs were national symbols of the Mexican identity and were being improved as a standardized breed. This seven-month-old puppy belonged to the Countess Lascelles de Premio Real, who was a prominent breeder of xoloitzcuintli. The article states the ears will become erect after the dog is a year old. Maybe.

And then no article about a breed would be complete without a photo of a bitch with puppies, here is Lampi with her ten-day- old puppies. I think this litter would have had to have had some coated individuals, but they are not featured– either they were removed so the photo could be taken or they were culled.

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The dog’s name was “Me Too.”

This image comes from George O. Shields’s The American Book of the Dog (1891).

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I didn’t know they behaved like this.

I figured they were more dainty and fragile.

These things are more like hairless kelpies.

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