Dogs in Maya civilization

Hairless, barkless dogs were only one of the species of Maya dogs; there were also dogs for guarding the homes and for hunting (especially deer)

Questions about Dogs in Maya civilization

2000 years ago the Maya and their neighbors had several kinds of dogs. We have a provisional classification (which we will review as more information is available about ancient dogs of Mesoamerica).

  1. Short-legged dogs, fed with maize to fatten up and eat. These are especially well documented in the ceramic figurines of the Colima area of northwest Mexico. We estimate that this variety of dog would also have been known to the Maya. Their name in Nahuatl language of the Aztecs is Xoloitzcuintli.

  2. Hunting dogs. These were larger and potentially different shape than dogs-for-eating. Legs were a bit longer, and they were not as fat. These dogs are often shown in deer-hunting scenes and some bird-hunting scenes on 7th-8th century Lowland Maya ceramic bowls and plates.
  3. Household dogs. Yes, we realize that the household dogs may well have been the same as the hunting variety. Zoo-archaeologists can help us improve this classification as time goes on. I estimate these dogs may have been slightly larger than hunting dogs. Although I provisionally call these household dogs, they could include “dogs to accompany lords, rulers, and other high-status individuals” (as seen on several Nebaj and Nebaj-style polychrome vases or bowls).

If it turns out that all skeletons of dogs in Maya middens are either dogs-to-be-eaten, or “other dogs” then we can rephrase our classification to indicate that, when not out hunting deer, the hunting dogs were wandering around the house, protecting it at night.

But either way the classification is clarified, we want to move forward and begin to rescue the Maya dogs of Guatemala from being forgotten. 95% of articles on pre-columbian dogs of Mesoamerica are on West Coast Mexico (Colima) or on Aztec gods. For example, there is the well known “dog which accompanies its former owner through the maze of Xibalba.” Ironically this dog is not mentioned in the longest and best known Mayan historical myth of Guatemala, the Popol Vuh, which describes Xibalba inside out (so to speak).

But very clearly wealthy Maya men had a dog companion which you can find on at least four versions of a Nebaj-area series of bowls and vases. Each scene shows a lord, ruler, or priest being carried in a hammock-like material strong from a pole. The pole is carried by bearers. The dog is trotting along under or alongside the lord.

Iconography of pre-hispanic dogs in Maya vases, and Post Classic Codices

The iconography of dogs in Maya art has a long way to go forward (as also awareness of different varieties of dogs in middens, caches, burials, or other deposits found during excavations in Maya ruins of Mesoamerica). But we want to get started with our new method of providing education to school children, namely with comic-like yet educational books.

As an intermediate summary, most pre-Columbian people in Mesoamerica kept dogs for eating, but also had dogs for hunting and guarding the home. The question is whether all were the same size and shape. Were some a different genetic variety? Most were probably variations of the same species, though zoologists, especially zoo-archaeologists, can better contribute to answering this question.

Aboriginal dogs are still alive and well in Mexico, Peru, and a few other countries. The last pre-hispanic dog known in Guatemala died about 5 years ago. This we learned from Q’eqchi’ villagers in an impressively remote mountain valley settlement. It took us 10 hours to hike in and out, and once there they told us the last dog of this kind died two years ago. These dogs had been seen about 20 years ago by two people with whom we have spoken. One is a multi-lingual university-trained agronomist, so he was fully capable of noticing the difference between a native Maya dog and a modern Hispanic, other European, or North American species. It would be worthwhile for a zoologist to do DNA tests of dogs in their area to see what percent of ancient Maya dog DNA is still present.

We use our own dog Pek as a model for our educational character. Pek was clearly a modern variety but I bet he had a bit of DNA from ancient Maya species. Of course our drawings also have an awareness based on dogs of the 6th through 9th centuries which are pictured in Classic Maya ceramic paintings or 3-dimensional portraits as a 20 cm high figurine (which I often call a cookie jar since often the head is the lid for the body).

four Canis lupus familiaris mayan dogs DZ Sep 2016 outline Copyright FLAAROdocoileus virginianus Canis lupus familiaris mayan dogs DZ Oct 2016 outline Copyright FLAAR
three Canis lupus familiaris mayan dogs DZ Sep 2016 outline Copyright FLAAR
Diana Zea Gave life to this characters and Pek the dog for the story telling of his adventures.

Pek will be a natural dog, meaning having good habits but also a few bad habits. However overall Pek is a good reference and he himself will explain his life and the Maya village around him. The time frame is over a thousand years ago but simultaneously merged with Mayan villages in remote jungle-covered mountains today. We include comic presentations of TV sets to allow Pek to communicate with children in todays world. So time frame is merged, so to speak.

What is most important is that Pek is likeable, friendly and social. So he can speak about the personal values and manners of behavior which are helpful for children to learn: honesty, being friendly to everyone in the house and neighborhood, using self-control so not eating so much that you get obese, helping take care of people who need assistance (injured, ill, or elderly).

This web page is to introduce Pek, to explain how he got his name, and to explain how he worked his way into my heart and soul (yes, I actually had a doggie companion for about two years, which is the real dog on which our comic character is based). As you can surmise by reading this entire Mayan character web site, much of this is my autobiography. I have had a frankly unbelievable life in the jungles of Mesoamerica, from my first trip as a backpacker to Palenque at age 16 (all by myself: no parents, no relatives, no one else to help figure things out).

Autobiography of Dr Nicholas and Pek, a playful dog companion in Guatemala

Several years ago our gardener brought a semi-abandoned dog from his village to our office in Guatemala City.

The young dog was terrified because he had been removed from the area he knew, put on the back of a pickup truck, and brought to a place where it had no experience in. He had not only shit-in-sheer-fear, he had also vomited.

When I picked him up to put him on the ground, he dug his feet into locked position and refused to move forward (afraid that even worse than a 2 hour drive in the open back of a pickup truck would await him if he followed me).

So I picked him up again and carried him into the house.

Within a few hours he realized that we all liked him. And most importantly, he learned that none of us would hit or maltreat him. My office is on the sixth floor; the entrance to the home/office is on the third floor (the building is on a steep slope of the mountain range ringing Guatemala City in Central America). Since my desk is at the top floor, this is the floor where I put him. But every time the first day that I walked downstairs to discuss projects with other of the employees in our building, the dog was afraid I might never come back to the 6th floor, so he followed me down every time (then he had to hike back upstairs when I returned to my office). I estimate that I climb the stairs about 50+ times a day (even today, at age 71).

But after a few days the dog learned that I always came back to my 6th floor office, so he began to be relaxed and stayed up there even when I went downstairs. We named him Pek, which is a word for dog in one of the 21 Mayan languages of Mexico or Guatemala. In other Mayan languages pek means stone.

A truly memorable day was when the husband and wife pair who had raised this dog in their village, when the wife arrived with the husband to see how their former dog was doing.

Pek was so happy to see them. He wagged his tail and made it clear he was very thankful that they had come to visit him. But then he circled around them, and came to sit next to me (not next to them). This meant that he appreciated them raising him, but that Dr Nicholas was now his faithful companion in life. This really impacted me.

Once Pek grew up he wanted to meet other dogs in the neighborhood

Pek was very happy and he learned how to be in an office with lots of people entering all day long. But when I had to fly to Shanghai, Istanbul, Dubai or Johannesburg or other far-away cities to attend digital printer technology signage trade shows, or when I went on a field trip to study Mayan plants in remote areas of Guatemala, Pek was lonesome in the garden (though of course there was the gardener to take care of him)

Once Pek was mature, he quickly developed an interest in learning about female dogs. So any time the gate opened to let in the cars of the many employees, Pek would run outside to search for female doggies in the neighborhood. We put an electronic collar on him, and a wire under the gate area, but he quickly learned that if he ran over the wire that he only got one single buzz (which he was willing to survive in order to sniff around the neighborhood to find scents on tree trunks, fire hydrants, or wherever else other local dogs left their scents).

Usually people in the neighborhood would bring him back (since we had our phone # on his collar). But one day he did not come back. We asked around everywhere, and a neighbor told us that someone had recently stolen her dog. So I estimate that Pek was stolen and sold elsewhere in the city. Probably we should have had him castrated so he might not run outside as often. In any event, I was very sad. We hope his new owner treats him nicely.

While Pek was still in the office we used to run together and play every few hours. I did this as healthy exercise for both of us. I would throw a ball or frisbee and he would catch it. But instead of returning it to me (so I could throw it for him again), he thought the object of the game was to run past me with the ball or frisbee still in his mouth. We played this game in the 60 meter drive way (which was all within the property). So there was about 3 meters of width the entire length.

Pek knew how to fake me out; and I knew how to fake which side I would try to move to grab the ball or frisbee. But most of the time Pek won. It was good exercise for both of us.

I will always remember Pek; I will never forget Pek. I also still remember the dog we had as kids in Missouri. Plus I remember the cat that I rescued from an alley in New Haven; it lived with me for a year or so while I was at Yale University. Then I brought it to Lake Yaxha in Guatemala. This will be another chapter.

A good thesis or dissertation would be study of all

  • Dogs pictured on polychrome Maya ceramics from Peten and nearby areas
  • Pictured under the “hammock-carried” lords on Nebaj-style vases
  • Pictured on Codex Style vases of northern Peten and adjacent Campeche
  • Presented in full 3D as figurines (especially Early Classic Peten)
  • Pictured in the Post Classic codices

I would not expect many dogs as ballgame hachas, and most of these would potentially be non-Guatemalan species of dogs even if the hachas were found in Guatemala or Honduras. But this artifact class should also be searched.

Together with:

  • Tabulated comparisons of all dog skeletons found so far, to see how many “species,” “breeds” or varieties of dogs existed, especially how many sizes.
  • Tabulated comparisons of all Mayan words for dogs to see if any Mayan words today give hints of different sizes, shapes, or functions of dogs a thousand years ago
  • Tabulated comparisons of all hieroglyphs related to dogs (asking the same questions as above)


  • Comparing varieties of size, shape, and purpose (function) of dogs among the Aztec and other pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica.

This would be an outstanding PhD dissertation, combining iconography, epigraphy, linguistics, and zoo-archaeology.

When you look at Mexican pre-Columbian dogs on the Internet, the most popular ones in Google image returns are pure hairless (no hair anywhere). But in fact the most authentic for the Maya are ones with fluff of hair on head, and fluff of hair at back of the tail. But this is only one variety of “Maya dog.” The dogs to be eaten may have very well been totally hairless.

70% of the dogs painted on Codex Style pottery are potentially repainted by art dealers (usually to fake up the resale price), so that’s why most look the same.

But a few Codex style dogs are authentic. One in the MET I would need to see in person to detect to what degree it may (or may not) have been repainted. The photos on their web site are not adequate to judge whether the lines are modern paint or ancient paint ( This dog has a clear fluff of hair rising from the center of its head. The ears are unexpectedly long. The feet are jaguar-like (such mixtures of features from different animals is common). No fluff is visible on the tail.

Dogs pictured on Peten style polychrome plates and bowls are not faked as often (note, “repainting” is a ruse to raise selling price. To hide the truth, repainting is called “restoration” but its actual purpose is to make the vase look more pretty so more people think it is in full original condition) But the repainting often destroys the original style and makes most vases, plates, and bowls look rather silly.

The dogs shown on the codex vases are different than the hunting dogs and companion dogs on polychrome vases (which have no fluff on head or tail, because they probably had a lit of fur all over).

It will be interesting to learn whether the companion dogs and the hunting dogs had fur (I estimate they did).

The incised bones of Tikal Burial 116, which include what is repeatedly claimed to be a “shaggy dog,” is possibly not really a dog whatsoever. Many (often most) identifications of complex animal renderings in Maya art are incorrect.

Also for flowers and trees: too many books and peer-reviewed journals do not always have the correct identifications of the plants or flowers. The “cacao tree” on the Nebaj-area vase of the Museo Popol Vuh is indeed a pseudo-cacao tree, but I spent four years studying other trees in Guatemala and found out what tree was also being used by this 7th-9th century Guatemalan Maya artist.

Fortunately most vases, plates, and plates in the Museo Popol Vuh are not repainted.

Bibliography on prehispanic dogs of Mesoamerica

We will present a full bibliography when we catch up from our current research on two species of oropendola, several species of stingless bees, and our recent discovery on the Internet: that there is a wasp in Guatemala which also makes honey.

But in the meantime, a great mass of information on Mesoamerican dogs of Mexico is:

  • El perro mesoamericano. Arqueologia Mexicana (magazine). Vol. XXI, Num. 125, Enero-Febrero 2014.

What is missing is a thesis, dissertation, monograph, or nice long article on Mesoamerican dogs of Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.