A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
When the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto came to the southeast United States, he brought with him his own war dogs, animals similar to greyhounds and mastiffs, but he also seems to have enjoyed an occasional dog barbecue courtesy of the Native Americans he met on his travels. Whether by habit, preference, or necessity, dogs have been a part of many cultures' diets. Evidence for the large-scale breeding of dogs as food has been found at the late Iron Age (ca. 450-100 B.C.) site of Levroux in central France. Excavations at the site of Porden Point, Devon Island, Canada, have revealed that the people of the Thule culture (ancestors of the modern Inuit) were using dogs both for work and food from the 12th to 15th centuries. The Aztecs, whose ancestors were called the Chichimec, or "Dog People," are known to have bred a hairless dog they called a Xoloitzcuintle to serve at royal feasts. And at Halliday, a site near Cahokia, the mound center north of modern-day St. Louis, which was the largest pre-Columbian city north of Mexico from A.D. 1050 to 1400, butchered dog bones have been found in great quantities, suggesting they formed a significant part of the diet of the Mississipian culture.
The Indians came forth in peace and gave them corn, although little and many hens, and a few little dogs, which are good food. These are little dogs that do not bark, and they rear them in the house for food.
—Rodrigo Rangel, personal secretary to Hernando de Soto, 1540
Some of the best evidence for dog consumption in antiquity comes from the Olmec culture, often thought of as a precursor to the Maya ("Beyond the Family Feud," March/April 2007). The Olmec flourished in the lowlands along the Gulf of Mexico from about 1400 to 400 B.C. Although they had an abundance of food at their disposal, the Olmec ate dogs as part of their regular diet. At San Lorenzo, an Olmec city that has been excavated since the 1970s, archaeologists have found the remains of dogs and other animals used for food, including birds, deer, and fish, in the middens. Amber VanDerwarker of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has worked on several Olmec sites, including two farming villages within 40 miles of San Lorenzo. VanDerwarker has a fascinating theory about how the Olmec of the Early Formative Period (1900-1000 B.C.), when San Lorenzo was occupied, may have used dogs. "At the farm sites, we mostly find lower limb fragments like feet and also skulls in the middens. These are not the meaty parts of dogs," says VanDerwarker. "But at the elite sites like San Lorenzo, we find bones from all the meaty sections. This suggests that the farmers were raising dogs (and crops such as maize) to give to their leaders at certain times of the year as a kind of tax payment." Carbon isotope analysis of the dog bones allowed scholars to reconstruct their diet. The study shows that that the Olmec dogs only ate maize, whereas humans ate a diverse range of foods. Perhaps the dogs were being deliberately fattened up to make them a more valuable form of tribute.
Dogs were also part of daily meals for one of the peoples who had close contact with the Olmec, the inhabitants of the Soconusco region on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico. "Unlike in the Old World, where you have many different domesticated animals, in the New World, dogs are one of the only domestic animals that can provide a ready source of animal protein," says anthropologist Robert Rosenswig of the University at Albany. He also thinks that "dogs were consumed for nutritional and ceremonial reasons, unlike wild animals whose numbers cannot be counted on for large gatherings." Rosenswig believes there may have been a change in the use of dogs at approximately 1400 B.C. Prior to this, dogs were buried along with humans—one dog burial that he excavated at the Cuauhtémoc site about six miles from the Guatemalan border contained grave offerings similar to those in human burials, including a pot that looks like a dog's bowl. After this point, all known dog remains indicate that they were consumed as food, since the bones are only found in garbage middens, not in graves with people. "The changing use of dogs was one aspect of new cultural practices on the Pacific coast at this time that also included the use of Olmec-style pottery and figurines," he says. "It indicates more intensive connection between peoples from distant regions of Mesoamerica."