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Man Bites Dog

Nobuo Shigehara

A History of Dogs in the Early Americas. Marion Schwartz. 233 pp. Yale University Press, 1997. $27.50.

Animals have their own history. Marion Schwartz asks you to take a dog's-eye view while reading this book, an observation of early American history through an examination of the canine's role in society. Considering the long and close relationship that has existed between human beings and dogs, the dog is well suited for the author's purpose.

Dancing in the darkClick to Enlarge Image

A History of Dogs has been carefully researched, and the author includes a very useful 24-page bibliography. Endnotes recap the main theme of each chapter, and useful and important data such as the group names of native Americans and their places of habitation, their words for dogs (the word "dog" had many different meanings among different native groups), and archaeological data are included. Considering the huge volume of material, the reader learns to check maps to find out which groups are under discussion (each chapter mentions the Mayan empire, the Amazon and North America) and which events are relevant to those groups. In addition to the maps, 90 photographs aid understanding.

Schwartz describes dogs mainly from a cultural standpoint rather than a biological one, discussing everything from legends relating to dogs (such as their being good guides in the land of the dead) to taboos regarding their handling. The book points out that dogs served a practical role as well—for hunting, hauling and dinner. The dog-as-food discussion might have been more interesting had it been analyzed in more detail—for instance, did people turn to dog meat as a last resort? Throughout Japanese history, people ate dogs but only when wild boars were in short supply.

We also learn that dogs were seen as a force of nature and that their breeding was not popular among native Americans. After European conquest, the native dog's life changed dramatically; as a result of interbreeding with European dogs, native dogs died out. However, as the author states in the epilogue, their legacy remains, and the history of dogs in America is, ultimately, a success story.—Nobuo Shigehara, Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, Japan

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