Evidence is growing that dogs were once valued for their meat and regularly were consumed in California and likely other places throughout the world.

“Dogs are reared (or were) largely for the flesh which they supply ... like the farmer’s yellow-legged chicken, when other meat is scarce,” wrote Stephen Powers of the U.S. Department of the Interior, referring to the practices of Yokut Native Americans in his 1877 “Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region.”

In 1991, Lynn Snyder in a University of Tennessee publication, noted that dogs often have a high fat content compared to other food sources and, unlike wild animals, their fat content varies little between seasons. Dogs then would have been an attractive food source, particularly during the winter and early spring, when wild food sources were lean.

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The latest evidence comes from a recent study of multiple 2,000-year-old canine burials in California, with a focus on what are now the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Delta regions. The study, accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science, represents the first to employ DNA analysis on canines from archaeological sites in the golden state.

Some of the California canine remains previously had been attributed to coyotes and wolves, but DNA determined the bones belonged to dogs.

Certain burials showed that the dogs had their hindquarters removed before internment. Dog bones were also found buried with a wide range of associated offerings, such as red ochre, quartz crystals, pipes, abalone shells and baskets still containing seeds.

Native American tribes, such as the Ohlone, Coast Miwok and Patwin, dominated the territories at the time. Differences in the dog burials could therefore reflect differences in how dogs were valued and treated by the diverse groups.

2,000-year-old canine burial in CaliforniaAlan Leventhal

In some cases, it appears that dogs were ritually killed, with two lines of evidence supporting that theory, according to lead author Brian Byrd of the Far Western Anthropological Research Group.

“These include occasional removal of a portion of the individual and the inclusion of rare, esoteric objects within the internment,” Byrd told Discovery News. “If the dogs were just pets or companions that died of natural causes, then we would not expect to find this pattern. Similarly, double internments are unlikely to represent natural deaths, given the odds of two dogs dying at the same time.”

Byrd and his team conducted isotopic analysis of the dog remains and found that the animals, when alive, “had a diet similar to humans.” The dogs therefore either scavenged food near human settlements, or were fed scraps and leftovers.

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Dogs may have been sacrificed as food for the dead or for other rituals. An initiation ceremony among the Patwin, for example, involved wounding the person and then covering that initiation wound with a bandage.

“This bandage has been dipped in the blood of a dog previously killed,” wrote A.L. Kroeber in a 1932 University of California-published ethnography.

Ann Gayton, in another ethnography published by the University of California, described what happened among Yokuts when upland groups congregated at the foothill village of Chischas.

“The men arrived making skirmishes with their bows and arrows, killing dogs and chickens with permission from the Chischas, and afterward paid the latter with beads,” Gayton recorded. “Then they commenced to eat them with great pleasure.”

Dogs fulfilled other roles too, including helping with hunting, guarding villages, serving as beasts of burden and -- more in keeping with today’s view -- serving as companions.

“I think what is clear is that dogs were valued, and that their roles in these societies were varied and complicated,” Byrd said.