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The Canine Figurines of Mesoamerican Colima

A Dog Eat Dog World: The Canine Figurines of Mesoamerican Colima

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The ceramics of West Mexico were very different from contemporary civilizations.  Jalisco, Nayarit and Colima were the primary sites, creating some of the most intriguing and visually stimulating art of the time despite their removal from such infamous groups as the Aztec.  While these three locations share similar artistic characteristics, the ceramic depictions of dogs playing remain one of the most unique creations of the site of Colima. 

The pot-bellied dog figure of Colima

In West Mexican culture, it was understood that works of art tended to represent certain themes important to the culture.  Themes could extend to celebratory weddings, children's births, and royal feasts.  However, it was also widely recognized that these works of art had some underlying religious significance as well.  The ceramic dog figure (Figure 1) comes from the West Mexican site of Colima during the Late Formative Period (300 BC-300 AD).  Made of terracotta clay and fired, it represents one of the native hairless dogs of the region and was intended for multiple uses.  The dog figure appears to be indicative of both life and death themes, through its association with food and graves.

Figure 1. Pot-bellied Dog Figure, Mexico, State of Colima, 300 BC - 300 AD, ceramic

Figure 1. Pot-bellied Dog Figure, Mexico, State of Colima, 300 BC - 300 AD, ceramic ( Wikimedia Commons )

Life-size in shape, the dog figure stands on four short, chubby legs and depicts the native hairless dogs of the area.  Its belly is rounded and swollen—evidence that it has clearly well-fed and cared for—while its head is lifted and ears perked up, revealing a happy, playful nature within.  In the culture of Colima, dogs played a significant role in both life and death, in part because they were one of the only domesticated animals in the society.  Thus, the simple existence of these ceramic dogs reveals that they were once so meaningful, it was necessary to immortalize their quaint forms.  However, upon closer inspection of the culture's beliefs and customs, it becomes evident that these sculptures were not meant to be mere reminders of adorable puppies, but of a higher significance.

Figure 2. Native hairless dogs of Mexico

Figure 2. Native hairless dogs of Mexico ( Wikimedia Commons )

Dogs as a meat source

Dog figures reveal one of the primary functions of canines in Late Formative Colima: their function as a food source.  The chubbiness of the hound shows how the dogs were often fattened by an overprovision of food so they would be able to provide a good quantity of meat to the tribe.  However, this task was considered a proud one, so the sculpture attempts to honor the dog for his sacrifice.  These dogs aided the lives of the people of Colima by themselves providing sustenance.  To depict this, some forms of these statues were created with spouts, suggesting that even the ceramics used as sources of nourishment—either to pour water or liquefied food, as seen in Dog with a Corn Cob (Figure 3).  What is unique about the dogs of Colima however, is the happiness the dogs radiate in ceramic form.  Not only is the practice of eating dogs noteworthy because, being domesticated, it was not commonly done, but there is a reciprocity associated with the creatures and their actions: the dogs are presented as happy to provide for the people.

Figure 3. Dog with a corn cob, replica of a Colima ceramic

Figure 3. Dog with a corn cob, replica of a Colima ceramic ( Novica)

Sacred food

This reciprocity is seen throughout West Mexican—and Mesoamerican as a whole—culture, most often through food and meals.  Eating is viewed as a religious ceremony, connecting the people of Colima to the earth.  What one consumes by mouth is later returned to the natural world as fertilizer, and the cycle of life continues.  Corn, or maize, was one of the most important source religious icons among the Mesoamerican peoples because of the belief that man was made from maize.  Thus the maize god was the most prominent deity throughout multiple contemporary and later cultures.  This reciprocal system between earth—and by extension the gods—and humans is one of the defining factors of Mesoamerican culture.  The dog figure, and other similar ceramics, represents this importance by reminding of the significance of food in relation to man.

Figure 4. The Maize God

Figure 4. The Maize God ( Authentic Maya )

Dogs in funerary art

Conversely, for similar reasons as mentioned, it is possible that the dog figure is intended as an effigy, or a piece of funerary art.  Just as food is symbolic of the cyclical relationship between humans and the gods, it is also symbolic of birth and rebirth, as everything that is destroyed—eaten—is returned to the earth.  In this way, dog ceramics might be a funerary object.  Commonly found in shaft tombs, it was not unusual for dog ceramics to be found buried with the deceased as companions for the afterlife, or to commemorate the sacrifice of an animal after it has been eaten.  This links neatly with the reciprocal relationship between the humans and animals, as the dogs remain remembered both in death and after death.  Since the particular dog in Figure 1. cannot be dated to a particular person or event, it is equally as likely that it is intended as a funerary effigy as a representation of its importance as a source of food.

Reconstruction of a Shaft tomb exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México

Figure 5. Reconstruction of a Shaft tomb exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México ( Wikimedia Commons )

The dog figure was undoubtedly created for both decorative reasons and ceremonial, but was probably created for the masses.  Because of the companionship dogs supplied in West Mexican culture, these ceramics were more than likely produced often and by many artists, to be used as necessary by the public.  Despite the separation between Colima and the high civilizations of the Aztecs, their playing dogs reveal their development as a society.  The close association between food and the life cycles is shared with their contemporaries, but Dog Figure reveals how truly mutual these values were within their culture.

Featured image: Dog Figures from Mexico, State of Colima, ceramics. Public domain

By Ryan Stone

References

Adams, Richard E. W. Prehistoric Mesoamerica (University of Oklahoma Press: Oklahoma, 2005.)

Johnson, D.K. Art History Resources: Formative Period Mesoamerica Olmec Culture, 1200 BC - 300 BC August 3, 2013. Accessed July 5, 2015.                                         
http://www.art-and-archaeology.com/timelines/mesoamer/preclas.html

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec . New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1986. Print.

Pack, Crista Anne. "Ancient West Mexican Sculpture: A Formal and Stylistic Analysis of Eleven Figures in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts." Virginia Commonwealth University

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