The Xolo - Viringa

© by Carol Miller August 2006


By Carol Miller

The various cultures in the area of Lambayeque, on the North Coast of Peru, cultivated a native breed of hairless dog called the "viringa", much admired for its docile nature, and owing to its naturally high body temperature, for its curative powers. As a companion in bed, owners claimed, the warm dog cured a number of ailments, including rheumatism.

The people of Mesoamerica, with whom the Precolumbian Peruvians traded, were equally known for their own version of the hairless dog, built on wild breeding stock originating especially in the basin of the Balsas River. The Mexica and the Purpecha, among other local cultures in the modern states of Michoacan, Colima, Mexico, Guerrero and Oaxaca, furthermore fed on their warm Xoloitzcuintle. The word is derived from the Aztec language, in Nahuatl xolo, meaning "dog", and the endearing little animal is reputed to be as hearty and delicious as it is affectionate and devoted, in effect, the original Mexican "hot dog".

The Xoloitzcuintle, a hairless canine of medium size, is sweet, tractable, patient and charming, with an agreeable aesthetic, adaptable to children, aggressive only when trained as a guard dog. They are actually companion dogs, given to proximity with humans. Their skeletal remains have in fact been discovered in Precolumbian tombs, buried together with their human masters, not only among the cultures of the Altiplano, but as well among Maya settlements in the Mexican southeast.

Archaeologists have unearthed physical evidence of their presence both in Calakmul, in the interior of the state of Campeche, and in Champoton, on the Gulf of Mexico coast. Though generally dark gray in color, blotches of pink skin, with no pigmentation whatever, are not uncommon. Their skin is warm to the touch, and they have a natural body temperature of 104 F. Normally devoid of any fur, they are nonetheless known to retain tufts of hair on the top of their heads or the backs of their necks, and isolated hairs often occur on the paws or body. They are not hunters. So rare was meat in their native diet that their last molars are gone. They do well on a bland diet.

Given the lively trade along the Pacific Coast, and the constant exchange of merchandise of all types, as well as live animals, between the peoples of Mesoamerica and Peru, the dogs possibly evolved from a single common ancestor and were included among the trade goods. The two breeds are, in fact, similar in stature, the largest specimens measuring between forty and fifty centimeters in height at the shoulder (sixteen to twenty inches), with characteristics in common, such as the missing molars, occasional dispigmentation, and the tufts of hair on the top of the head; specialists have in fact identified as many as six variations of the breed.

Various specimens may appear in the same litter, even hairless pups with other pups fully covered with thick, normal hair. Diverse sizes, including large, medium and toy, may also occur in the same litter, but they are still Xolo. Another, related breed, nevertheless does exist. It is known as the Tepeitzcuintle, and while it might possibly be considered a canine, a miniature version of the larger Xolo, non-related variations include what is more likely rodent or even porcine, and is known as well as the "bush piglet", or "the rat of the countryside".

Specimens in various postures, attitudes and sizes, though mostly toy, were modeled and sculpted by Precolumbian peoples and were used as burial offerings. These clay ofrendas appear in the ancient shaft tombs along the Mexican Pacific, in the present-day states of Jalisco, Colima, and Nayarit, and are irrevocably identified with the culture of this region, though examples appear as well in coastal Peru, and the little ceramic Viringas are included in the displays of every regional museum.

Because of that other exchange, commercial as well as cultural, as early as the time of the Han Dynasty (200 B.C.-200 A.D.) between Peru and Mexico, with China and Southeast Asia, it is equally feasible for the Mexican dog to have been transported to East Asia, where it evolved into the so-called Chinese Crested, another hairless breed with a tuft of hair at the top of the head. Or perhaps, and more likely, it was the other way around. The dog conceivably originated in Asia and was transported to Peru and Mexico during periods of commercial exchange. Curiously, in Cuba and throughout the Caribbean both the Xoloitzcuintle and the Viringa are known as the "Chinese dog".

When I first arrived in Mexico at the beginning of the 1950's the Xolo was a rarity. Though the breed existed, and was acknowledged by the Mexican Canine Association, examples were few, and wild specimens, like my female "Painani", had been brought out of the Balsas Basin. She was a fine little bitch. When I showed her, she easily won her championship. In order to find a mate, however, I had to search among private, urban owners and I ultimately crossed her with an excellent stud that had been bred in captivity. Descendants of my pups can still be seen today in the gardens of the Dolores Olmedo Patiño Museum at La Noria, in the Xochimilco district of Mexico City, where a flock of them wander, to the delight of visitors. There is no doubt: the Xolo has a magic all its own. In ancient art, in archaeology, or as a companion in the modern metropolis, the Precolumbian hairless dog has a unique distinction.