Are There Still Native Dogs in Cuzco?

Everywhere you look in Cuzco, you will see dogs frolicking or stretched out resting. They freely roam through the imperial city as if they were its original inhabitants. Undoubtedly the Incas had dogs, as did other indigenous peoples in the New World. Nevertheless, when you look at the dogs they look much like the mixes of dogs common to Europe. This raises the question of if the dogs are truly native.

Dogs are important in Cuzco. Almost every family has one or more. While some dogs stay home, many are like the men of the house and leave each day to spend time in the streets with their friends and to roam and check out their territory.

The freedom of dogs can seem very strange to foreigners. Some will complain and some react with fear. Mostly, the dogs ignore people–except for their own people. They are too busy in their own world to worry about the people moving through, unless they are strangers trying to sneak through private spaces.

A Dog in the Sunlight (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
A Dog in the Sunlight (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

For the people of the city, these dogs are important. It is as if they lived half in this world and half in another. Their senses are so much sharper than those of people. They can communicate with the dead and, when you have a bad dream or a dream that contains bad omens you want to whisper it into the ear of your dog so that it will not come to pass.

Dogs have accompanied people for millennia, since very early in our history as a species, once we had left Africa. From wherever dogs were first domesticated from wild canids, whether in Europe or the Middle east, they have accompanied people.

A Gathering of Free Roaming Dogs in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
A Gathering of Free Roaming Dogs in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

An recent article in the prestigious journal Science challenges the standard argument that genetics support an East Asian origin for dogs 15,000 years ago. The authors compared the mitochondrial DNA of a sample of modern dogs and wolves from around the world with that of prehistoric canids.They found that dogs everywhere show a close relationship to European canids and that domestication there took place before that in East Asia.

Between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago, they hold, canids and hunters and gathers in Europe developed their relationship and that all modern dogs are most closely related to European canids.

A Soulful Dog in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
A Soulful Dog in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

A different article also published recently suggests a different take. Published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, the authors of this study pose the question of whether European dogs, brought it eh last five hundred years, have overwhelmed indigenous American dogs. Are there still dogs in the Americas whose genes show they were here before Europeans came to these shores?

Also relying on mitochondrial DNA, the authors of this study claim thatNew World dogs show distinctive genetics from those of Asia or Europe. They also hold that indigenous dogs are still found in the New World, although street dogs they looked at in cities in South America show mostly European or modern Asian origin.

Man's Best Friend in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
Man’s Best Friend in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

A couple of things from there study are of particular importance for people interested in the dogs of Cuzco, Peru.

The study’s authors show that the hairless Perro Peruano is closely related to the Chihuahua of Mexico and that both show strong indigenous origin. They are indeed native to the New World, although the Perro Peruano as a breed does show some European admixture.

Then, the researchers note that although most dogs in South America, especially those in the metropolises of Argentina show European DNA, dogs in rural Bolivia are native. In the high Andes they find pockets of native dogs especially in rural areas, though these are not recognized as a breed.

The authors do not say whether they have looked at Peru, especially the areas like Cuzco that are close to Bolivia. Nevertheless, what they find in Bolivia is likely true for rural Cuzco too, as well as elsewhere in Peru.

While many of the dogs in urban Cuzco probably have European or recent Asian genes, in the villages and communities that surround it there are still dogs like those who were there for the rise and later fall of the great civilizations of Peru including the Incas. As a result, it is likely that some native dogs still roam the streets of Cuzco. These are worth noticing, celebrating, and preserving.

A BLond Dog in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
A Blond Dog in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)


O. Thalmann, B. Shapiro, P. Cui, V. J. Schuenemann, S. K. Sawyer, D. L. Greenfield, M. B. Germonpré, M. V. Sablin, F. López-Giráldez, X. Domingo-Roura, H. Napierala, H-P. Uerpmann, D. M. Loponte, A. A. Acosta, L. Giemsch, R. W. Schmitz, B. Worthington, J. E. Buikstra, A. Druzhkova, A. S. Graphodatsky, N. D. Ovodov, N. Wahlberg, A. H. Freedman, R. M. Schweizer, K.-P. Koepfli, J. A. Leonard, M. Meyer, J. Krause, S. Pääbo, R. E. Green and R. K. Wayne. “Complete Mitochondrial Genomes of Ancient Canids Suggest a European Origin of Domestic Dogs”, Science (New Series, Vol. 342, No. 6160, 15 November 2013, pp. 871-874).

Barbara van Asch, Ai-bing Zhang, Mattias C. R. Oskarsson, Cornelya F. C. Klütsch, António Amorim and Peter Savolainen. “Pre-Columbian origins of Native American dog breeds, with only limited replacement by European dogs, confirmed by mtDNA analysis”, Proc. R. Soc. Biology (2013 280, 20131142, published 10 July 2013)

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