What Were Chihuahuas Bred For? Learn Their Surprising Ancient History

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Chihuahuas may seem like a small standard dogs. You might even consider them “outsiders” (pardon the pun). They’re incredibly cute, but why were Chihuahuas bred?

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine what they could offer in terms of hunting, herding cattle, or protecting an owner. However, the importance of these canines is very different from that of almost all other breeds.

Chihuahuas have an ancient past and are of great importance in Toltec, Mayan and Aztec cultures. In fact, it was believed that a person’s treatment of these dogs profoundly affected that person’s journey into the afterlife. However, their roots are even deeper in ancient history.

This article reviews the Chihuahua’s interesting past, exploring questions about breed, meaning, history, and more. We’ll also cover some things to know if you’re the proud owner of a Chihuahua.

From ancient wolves to chihuahuas

Chihuahuas are unique in that they are one of the few remaining North American breeds of pre-colonial origin. Alaskan Malamute and Greenland dogs belong to this group, but the Chihuahua is one of the southernmost breeds to retain a significant percentage of its ancient DNA (about 4%).

All dogs are descended from wolves, and genetic evidence suggests that everything domestic dogs are related to a single group (or closely related groups) of an ancient wolf species. This relative was probably the Late Pleistocene wolf that predated the modern wolf bloodline between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Thus, wolves and domestic dogs diverged from the Pleistocene wolf genetic line. This means that dogs and wolves have more of a sibling bond than a child-parent bond, respectively.

Humans must have begun domestication sometime after the genetic split and before the oldest dog remains existed. Researchers have discovered dog remains left around 36,000 years ago, although this date is disputed. However, sets of confirmed remains are dated to 14,200 years ago.

Dogs are believed to have entered North America with humans 15,000 years ago across the Bering land bridge. Huskies, Malamutes and Greenland dogs are the closest relatives of these early four-legged travelers. Humans migrated south over the next 13,000 years, breeding these dogs in various ways and ending up with small dogs called Techichis.

chihuahua on white background
It’s hard to see the resemblance, but Chihuahuas, like all dogs, are related to ancient wolves.

chrisbrignell/Shutterstock.com

Descendants of Techichis

Techichis were a breed of dog belonging to the Toltec and Mayan civilizations. These dogs were small, mute, and long-haired, but shared many characteristics with what we now call Chihuahuas.

The Toltecs used these dogs both as food sources and as companions. Precolonial Mesoamerica was deeply tied to trade, culture, and warfare. As a result, the Techichis moved across most of Central America as Europeans landed on its shores. This expansion and distribution has contributed to the emergence of breeds such as the Chihuahua.

The Mexican civilization was one of the strongest in the region between 1000 and 1500 AD, extending into what is now Arizona. This population was one of the three powerful nations united under the name “Aztec”. Small dogs like Techichis would certainly have been an integral part of these communities.

Chihuahua, Mexico lies below the states of Texas and Arizona, in an area that Mexican peoples would have occupied. Modern Chihuahuas get their name from this territory because the breed was so populated in the area.

There are artifacts depicting Chihuahua-like dogs dating back to 300 BC. These artifacts show both apple head and deer head varieties of these dogs, which correspond to the two dominant varieties of Chihuahua that exist today.

While these earliest depictions would likely have been of the Techichis, this could have been a time when the two races were nearly indistinguishable from each other.

Yet just knowing where they come from doesn’t put us in line in the objective of the breed. So why were Chihuahuas bred?

Why were Chihuahuas bred?

Most, if not all, dogs have a breeding goal. This purpose has something to do with hunting, farming, or protection in most cases. It is likely that the ancestors of the Chihuahua hunted small animals that lived in small holes. Other small dogs are usually bred for this purpose, unless they are just pets.

The Yorkiefor example, hunts rats.

However, Chihuahuas and Techichis took on more spiritual and utilitarian roles. The Toltec peoples used these dogs not only as food sources but also as sacrificial animals.

That said, there is no clear historical record of the transition from Malamute to Techichi. Likewise, there are no clear records of Techichi’s transition to Chihuahua. We don’t know exactly why these animals were bred the way they were. However, we can make some assumptions.

Herding many small dogs for food was probably very noisy. That could have been a reason the Techichis were mute. Whether this silence comes from breeding or training is not certain. Chihuahuas are particularly loud if they want to be, but most do well with a little training, so it’s likely that people have trained Techichis to be quiet.

Raising these dogs as food could have been another reason to keep them small. While a larger dog can produce more meat, larger dogs are more difficult to raise. They need more food and attention. They are also more threatening if they became aggressive.

The alternative is a nice little dog that can’t do much harm.

Chihuahua puppy on black background
Chihuahuas fulfilled many roles in pre-colonial Mesoamerica: food source, sacrifice, and guide to the afterlife.

Al_Er/Shutterstock.com

Breeding for sacrifice

It is important to note that the sacrifices were an honorable thing rather than a form of punishment.

The Aztecs believed that the gods breathed life into the universe by sacrificing themselves. This gesture could only be rewarded with continuous sacrifices to these same gods. big cats, Eagles, and humans joined dogs in these sacrifices. It was a long-standing practice in ancient Mesoamerica, and it was a high honor in most situations.

The fact that these animals were used for food and sacrifice does not mean that they were treated badly. It is likely that dogs of all kinds received a measure of respect in ancient Mesoamerica. As we will see in the next section, these dogs had great spiritual significance. Treating a dog badly put someone in a very difficult situation when they reached the afterlife.

Animals as important as dogs would have been great offerings to the gods. The same is true for jaguars and eagles. In fact, the peoples of Mexico wandered for decades before settling in their infamous floating city, Tenochtitlan. For years, the fledgling population sought a Eagle with a snake in his mouth sitting on a prickly pear.

When they saw this omen, they were finally going to settle down and build a great city. They eventually saw this omen in Lake Texcoco, where they built the largest pre-Columbian city the Americas had ever seen. The image of this snake still appears today on the coat of arms of Mexico.

People sacrificed eagles like the one of omen alongside Techichis, indicating their great respect in Aztec culture.

Chihuahuas carry spirits to the afterlife

The Aztecs were a confederation of three powerful cities (Tenochtitlan of the Mexica, Texcoco and Tlacopan peoples). The Aztec religion cited a place called Mictlan, also known as the “place of the dead”.

Unless someone had sacred or spiritual significance, it would enter Mictlan after death. An individual’s goal was to travel through 9 difficult realms in this underworld, starting with a river named Apanohuacalhuidos. To cross the river, the individual needed the help of a little yellow dog.

If someone had abused dogs in their lifetime, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to seek the help of a dog to cross the river. Without the help of a dog, the person wandered the kingdom forever.

This is similar to the Christian idea of ​​purgatory, or a place where souls wander as punishment.

In describing an Aztec burial practice, a 16th-century Franciscan priest mentions the inclusion of a small dog. The priest wrote this passage in the 1570s.

And also they made him carry a small dog, a yellow, and they fastened around his neck a loose cord of cotton. It was said that he (the dog) carried the dead across the place of the nine rivers into the land of the dead.

16th century Franciscan priest, Bernardino de Sahagún

As a result, it’s easy to imagine someone would treat a Techichi or Chihuahua much the same as we treat them today, if not better! Another missionary, Jose de Acostamentions people carrying their dogs on trips, sparing them their excess meat, and caring for them when they (the dogs) were sick.

We mention the Xoloitzcuintli (Xolo) towards the end of this article because it is not certain that the connection is really there. The Xolo is a hairless dog originating from Central America. It is a national treasure that has existed since Techichi times.

Xolotl is the dog-headed Aztec god who guides the soul and gives his name to these dogs. Some believe that Chihuahuas are the offspring of Techichis and Xolos, although this is unverified.

Indeed, an analysis of the world dog ancestry shows that the Xolo retain only 3% of their pre-colonial heritage, while the Chichuahuas retain 4%. To fully unpack the lineage of Chihuahuas, we would need more information about Techichi’s DNA, and they are off.

That said, it’s easy to imagine that a Chihuahua could come from the combination of these two breeds.

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