Dog & Dog Ceremonialism


From colonial observers, we have some reports which indicate a strong bond of affection between early-contact indigenous peoples and their dogs. The Shinnecock of Long Island1 are reported to have demonstrated a strong attachment to their dogs. When the Shinnecock were ordered by the colonial authorities to kill their “excess” dogs and any others who “offended” settlers, they responded angrily and refused to comply. Local settlers wrote to Governor Andros complaining that the Shinnecock, “. . . utterly refuse and doe norish and bring up kennels of them”2. W

hen Whites took matters into their own hands and killed some dogs belonging to Indians, they were berated with “threatening speeches”3. Nicolas Denys’ account of his travels among the Indians in northern New England describes many examples of affection for dogs. The most quoted reference is his account of Indian women who acted as surrogate mothers by suckling pups4. This act, however, may have been part of a religious ritual rather than an indication of a more generalized feeling about dogs.



On Long Island, Wolves were once abundant. The Indians of Long Island used to keep dogs, which were said to be young wolves that were raised to be tamed.

The early colonists considered these wolves as a nuisance to their livestock. In 1685, the government of Suffolk County spent forty-three pounds, thirteen shillings to kill wolves, including sixteen in East Hampton, three in Southampton, one in Southold, two in Brookhaven, six in Smithtown, and fifteen in Huntington.5


The relationship between man and dog is one of the more easily demonstrable examples of the “psychic unity” of humankind. The dog, a highly adaptable creature, appears to have domesticated himself very early in human history. Unlike his cousins, the dog attached himself to wandering bands of human hunters rather than chancing a much riskier existence in the wild. We can only guess at the actual nature of man’s first experience with the domestication process, but it seems likely that the initiative was probably taken by the dog. As people settled into more permanent camps, refuse piled up attracting a variety of forest denizens. It was the dog, however, who singled itself out for a special relationship. The widely accepted conclusion is that this domestication process took place in the Old World. Similarities between Old and New World dogs suggest that dogs accompanied their Asian masters across the Bering land bridge into North America.6

The practical nature of that relationship is suggested by the ethnographic data on the role of dogs in Indian culture. The early French explorers reported that the Micmac Indians used dogs for hunting7. In New England, dogs assisted in the hunt by harassing deer and moose8. Another account mentions the important role of dogs in hunting bear 9. This does not appear to be a universal pattern however, because the Iroquois and the southeastern Indians did not use dogs to aid them in the hunt. The most obvious universal trait was the role of dogs as an alarm system to protect the village from a surprise attack. Although the Huron9 and the Micmac4 frequently prepared dog meat as a delicacy for visitors, the regular consumption of dog meat by North American Indians was not a widespread practice. When the hunt failed, of course, the dog probably served as a convenient food supplement during the time of crisis. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that the Indians of Southern New England and Long Island consumed dogs as a regular part of their diet10.

Villages Roles

The role of the dog in religious ceremonialism was undoubtedly influenced by the practical function served by the dog in everyday village life. Dogs were closely associated with the domestic aspects of village life, providing protection, companionship, hunting assistance, and an emergency supply of meat. Another factor which appears to have played a role in the development of dog ceremonial] sill is the relationship between an animistic belief system and the domestication of a wild animal. The dog is at home in the wilderness world of animals as well as in the domestic world of man. In a recent study of Middle Woodland dog ceremonialism m, Anne-Marie Cantwell noted that dogs embody a duality, which can easily be appreciated by peoples living close to nature. In animistic belief systems the distinction between humankind and animals is often blurred. Dogs, said Cantwell, are:

. . . interstitial; they are intermediate between the forest, the world of animals, and the camp, the world of man. . . . like men they travel between the two worlds, but the dogs belong to neither and are, in that sense, liminal to both. Small wonder then that dogs appear in ritual contests, as parts of ritual meals , as sacrifices, as totems, as mediators with the spirit world, as grave goods with humans, or, . . . buried as humans are where human humans live. (Cantwell 1980:191).

The role of the dog as an intermediator, messenger or guide between this world and the spirit world has been frequently documented by early European explorers and settlers. The Iroquois sacrificed an unblemished, pure white dog during their midwinter celebration of the new year11. The dog was strangled, because it was considered taboo for the blood to be shed. The body was hung on a wooden statue of the creator god and decorated with ribbons and beads. A short time after this ceremony was completed, the dog was carried into the longhouse and cremated. It was believed that the smoke would carry the prayers of the shamans to the gods. To the Huron a white dog also had religious significance. They prepared a sacrificial feast during which the flesh of a white dog was eaten in order to obtain desired information from the spirit world12. The Fox Indians practiced a ritual that was somewhat similar to the Iroquoian white dog sacrifice13. They strangled a dog and hung it on a post to serve as a guide for dead souls as they crossed into the spirit world. A similar custom was practiced by the Koryak and Chukchi peoples of Siberia. They hung the sacrificed dogs on poles with their noses pointed to the sky where the departed souls had flown14.

Symbolism Throughout The World

The dog plays an important role in death rituals among a widespread number of cultures in both the old and the new worlds. The Maya and the ancient Egyptians both believed that the dog spirit served as a guide to the land of the dead. The Egyptian god Anubis who supervised the preparation of mummification rituals was always depicted as a human form with the head of a dog15. Anubis was generally regarded as a psychopomp for departed souls and a guardian who protected the mortuary complexes. The religious cult founded by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras included a belief that a dog held near the face of a dying person would receive the departing soul16.

During the Neolithic period in Europe, and perhaps even earlier, the dog was closely related to the female essence. This association probably grew out of their mutual involvement in hearth and home. Neolithic pottery motifs and effigies indicate that the dog was the “principal animal” of a goddess who appears to be related to the moon17. Human cults, night spirits, women and dogs are frequently interrelated in Old World mythology. The dog-headed god Anubis aided Isis in her quest for the body of her husband Osiris16. The quest was a crucial part of the Isis legends, which established her as the model of feminine virtue and courage. Here we see an interesting combination of death and domestic themes involving the role of the dog spirit. Egyptian villages often had cemeteries where mummified family dogs were buried. The Romans, Greeks, and Aztecs in the New World all had legends which combined female and dog themes. Dogs were sacrificed by the Romans to Diana the woodland goddess, who was the patron of women and creatures of the wild. Diana was probably derived from the Greek goddess Artemis, who protected children as well as women and forest animals. Here again we see a combination of death and domestic themes. Artemis was also associated with the sudden and unexplained death of females (Grant and Hazel 1973). In the New World the Aztec human goddess, Xochiquetzel, patroness of love, sexual pleasure and childbirth, was also called Izcuinam or “bitch goddess”18. The association of female sexuality and the dog has also been documented among Chipewyan peoples of northern Canada. In their origin myth the first woman has sexual intercourse with a dog and then gives birth to humankind19.

History of Rituals in North America

The archaeological data from North America suggests that all of these themes are represented in various combinations in different spatial and temporal contexts. The earliest dog burials in North America are found in Archaic components although it is quite possible that dog ceremonialism has its roots in the Paleo-Indian period. On the Frontenac Island site in northern New York State dogs were found buried in association with adult males, suggesting perhaps a celebration of the dog as a hunting partner. This relationship is also suggested by an Old Copper Culture burial in Michigan. Here two very old dogs were buried with an adult male. The grave goods included copper and flint projectile points. The advanced age of the dogs suggests that they were killed only after long years of service20. In the southeast, however, dogs appear about equally distributed in both male and female graves21. Young females were frequently honored with accompanying burials of several dogs. The largest body of data on Archaic dog burials comes from the Eva site on the Tennessee River in northwestern Kentucky. Lewis and Kneberg (1961) found eighteen dogs buried here, four of them in a flexed position under the skulls of human burials. The dogs buried at the Koster site in Illinois, however, were not in association with human graves. These creatures were placed in carefully prepared burials within the village area.

Long Island

On Long Island the patterns of Archaic dog ceremonialism closely resemble those found at Koster. The earliest documented dog burials were excavated at Shoreham-Wading River22 and Mt. Sinai Harbor23. Ronald Wyatt found the partially flexed burial of a mature female dog at the bottom of a refuse pit near a hearth which had been used for domestic food preparation24. There were no grave goods in association, nor were there any human remains in or near the pit. Michael Gramly found six dog burials in his Mount Sinai Harbor excavations. Three were excavated in association with village debris on Hopkins Point. The dogs were resting on their sides in a flexed position as if they had been sleeping. The absence of any sign of violence suggests the possibility of strangulation. This conjecture is supported by the data on the Huron and the Iroquois cited above. Nearby at Hopkins Landing three more dog burials were located, but none were as well preserved as those on the point.

Ca. 1790’s

The last wolf on Long Island is reportedly killed in Good Ground (Hampton Bays).25


The absence of human burials in close association with any of these dog inhumations strongly suggests that dog ceremonialism practiced at these sites was not part of a death ritual, nor is it likely that the dogs were messengers or guides to the spirit world. They appear to be part of a domestic ritual associated, perhaps, with the protection of the household. Anne- Marie Cantwell surveyed dog burials in midwestern Middle Woodland sites and found a similar pattern. Dog burials have not been found in the sacred mounds of the Hopewell. Instead they were located in the village sites, generally at some distance from the human mortuaries21.

The dog continued to play an important role in religious ceremonialism during the Transitional period, which followed the late Archaic in New York and New England. There were, however, some fascinating changes in the patterns of burial. The role of the dog in the elaborate funerary rituals of the Orient culture on Long Island was not recognized until Ritchie reexamined the skeletal remains in the cremation burials at Jamesport and discovered that dog bones were mixed in among the human remains. This led him to conclude that “the cremation of dog bones was a significant element of burial ritualism involved here,”26. Clearly Orient dog ceremonialism was quite different from the Archaic practices on Long Island.

The nature of this ceremonialism may actually be even more complex than Ritchie believed. When he excavated a village which was related to the hilltop Orient mortuaries, he found dog bones among the domestic debris27. The skeleton was concentrated in a small area, but it was not fully articulated. Ritchie concluded that the animal had been killed for food rather than burial as a part of a ritual. His conclusions here are open to question for two reasons. If the dog had been butchered for food, it is highly unlikely that the bones would have remained in such a concentrated area. Parts of the dog would have been passed around, consumed and the bones scattered about the camp. A second factor was the presence of an infant burial about fifty feet (c.15.2m) away in the same strata. Although the two burials were not in close association, there is a suggestion of a burial program quite distinct from the one represented in the mortuary cremation. Here we have the possibility of dog ceremonialism which combined death and domestic themes. The data base, however, is far too slim for any solid conclusions, but we do see this combination of themes clearly demonstrated much later in Woodland sites on Long Island.

Archeological Sites

One of the more extensive Long Island Late Woodland sites was excavated in 1900 by Mark Harrington near the village of Port Washington28. He uncovered eighty pits, sixteen of which contained human skeletal remains.

Dogs accompanied three of the human burials. Two of these were infants and the third was an adult. Harrington found an infant buried with three dogs. This unusual burial was in such poor condition that Harrington was unable to record precise associations or even to determine whether or not the burial was in a pit.

The other three burials were in a much better state of preservation, thus making a clear pattern distinguishable. The dogs were placed in the pits first, at depths ranging from twenty-nine to forty-two inches (73.7 to 106.7cm). Next a layer of soil was added; the human burials were laid on top of this and then covered over.

Three different methods of killing the dogs are suggested by the data. The dog in the adult burial was probably dispatched with a spear or an arrow. Harrington found a projectile point among the ribs of the skeleton. The other two are more problematical. One may have been buried alive; at least Harrington thought so. The contorted position of the skeleton suggested to him that the creature died while trying to dig its way out. The remaining dog lay on its back and showed no sign of violence. It is possible that this dog was strangled in a manner similar to that used by the Iroquois and the Huron. The ritual significance of these differences in sacrificial procedures remains unclear.

Eight of the dogs buried in the village refuse pits at Port Washington were not in association with human remains. These burials may indicate a continuation of the Archaic dog and hearth burials. The dog-human and dog-hearth inhumations appear to be related to similar domestic themes. Women, children and the hearth are the vital center of village life. The dog may have come to represent that important essence in prehistoric religious thought. The practice of dog-human burials was fairly widespread during this period. Graves which included adult females, young children and dogs have been reported in late Woodland sites in Michigan20 and New Jersey29. The dog-human burials may have evolved out of earlier, more generalized dog-hearth rituals. The association of the dog with human burials does appear to indicate a more complex theological concept.

A second site located on the same bay at Beach Haven was excavated in 1927 by F.P. Orchard for the Heye Foundation, which had also sponsored Harrington’s Port Washington dig30. In spite of the institutional link between the two excavations, Orchard appears to have been unaware that Harrington had filed a detailed report in the Heye Foundation archives31. Even Harrington’s published article on New York shell middens, which included a brief account of the Port Washington excavation, was not cited32. Orchard’s only mention of Harrington’s excavation cites as a reference an article by Allison Skinner in the Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. This oversight was unfortunate because a comparative analysis might have inspired a closer attention to burial patterns and perhaps encouraged some shifts in Orchard’s research strategy. The similarities in burial rituals were striking. Five of the pits contained human skeletal remains. Two of them included dog burials in the same pit with the humans.

The burial pattern followed here in the dog ceremony was similar to the one practiced at Port Washington. In pit number four (Orchard’s designation) a small dog had been “carefully buried” near the bottom33. A layer of dirt about a foot (c. 30cm) thick covered the dog.

On top of this layer Orchard found a most curious feature, one that has, to the author’s knowledge, never been mentioned in any of the Long Island excavation reports. Orchard described it as “. . . an oval of oyster shells set on edge about five inches apart . . .”34. It is possible, of course, that features similar to this may have existed in other burials. It would have been very easy to miss them given the excavation techniques used in the 1920s and the general profusion of shell throughout the site. Until more of these features are found and recorded, the shell oval will remain a fascinating mystery. Nearly two feet (60.1cm) of earth was placed on top of the feature to prepare a grave floor for the human burial. An adult in a flexed position was laid in the grave and covered with fill, which included what appears to have been debris from a cooking hearth.

The second dog burial was prepared in a similar fashion. At the bottom of pit number five, Orchard found the badly decomposed remains of a dog. Only the skull and leg bones survived, but stains in the soil convinced him that a complete skeleton had been there originally. A layer over two feet (60.1cm) in depth covered the dog burial. On this grave floor rested, in somewhat of a tangle, the flexed skeletons of an adult and an adolescent. The younger person had apparently been placed in the grave first. Dual burials are not uncommon in North America, but the theological concepts involved remain a puzzle. Whether they were mother and child who died at the same time or were unrelated people who suffered a similar fate is impossible to tell. Clearly more comparative research into burial patterns is required before we can begin to understand the. beliefs which were expressed here.

Similar practices were briefly alluded to by Nathaniel Booth in a general survey of excavations on eastern Long Island written in 194935. “Dog burials.” he said, “occur both in village sites and nearby. Usually the skull is missing, but two complete skeletons have been found.”36.

The reference to decapitated dogs suggests another ritual use of dogs which is associated with warfare rather than domesticity. The Wabnaki held a Dog Feast in preparation for warfare. They believed that the flesh of the dog would give the warriors courage37. The head of one of the dogs was removed and singed in the fire. Then it was taken in the hands of the war chief who sang to it, telling the dog spirit who and where the war party would attack. He passed the skull to each of his fellow warriors. Those who accepted the skull and sang to it signified that they would join the attack. There is, however, evidence that rituals involving the beheading of dogs were observed during the Middle Woodland period in the midwest. Wray and MacNeish (1961) report the burial of two dog skulls in a pit beneath a house floor in a Havana Hopewell site. The significance of this was underscored by the discovery at another Havana site of three crude, headless, four-legged figurines, which may have been intended to represent decapitated dogs. These effigies were associated with the burial of an extremely old dog, which had been placed in a pit under a house floor.

One of the more fascinating graves excavated on Long Island was discovered at Lake Montauk by Roy Latham in 1927. A construction crew broke open a wooden coffin containing skeletal material and Indian trade goods. They called in Latham who was able to salvage most of the artifacts. The presence of copper pots, glass beads, pewter and clay pipestems clearly indicated that the burial was post contact. Latham set the date at about 1670, based on the nature of the European artifacts (Southold Museum display). There were two skeletons in the coffin. One was an adult female about 25 years old and the other was a dog. The important point here is that the practice of dog-human burial was still a part of local Indian religion some three decades after the establishment of European settlements.


Two major themes in dog ceremonialism appear to be represented in Long Island sites. The association of the dog with home and hearth was first expressed in the Archaic burials and continued into the Late Woodland period. Dogs were purposely buried in village sites near hearths. It is possible that the dogs were sacrificed to protect the household from danger. Such a belief could easily have been inspired by the every day function of the village dogs.

During the Late Woodland period a new theme appears in dog ceremonialism. In addition to the dog and hearth burials, we now find dogs in close association with human graves. The dog may have been viewed as a guide for the departed souls as they made their way into the next world. If this is the case, it raises another question. Why were these particular individuals given a guide when so many others buried on the same site were not? Voegelin’s study of mortuary rituals among the historic Shawnee and other eastern tribes provides a clue to this question. Voegelin (1944) noted that variations in burial rituals in more complex cultural systems often reflect rank and status within the community. In smaller scale hunting and gathering bands, variations are more likely related to clan membership, cause of death, age or sex. The Shawnee for example, had different burial patterns for infants, suicides and murder victims38. The criteria for the dog sacrifice by the Long Island Indian communities appear to have been based on these considerations rather than on the rank of the individual.

Much more research is needed in the library as well as in the field. The ethnographic data and the published archaeological material often contain important bits of information which are overlooked until new questions are asked. Particular attention should be given to reports written prior to World War II because they have tended to b ignored by the present generation of archaeologists. With the proper eye and a well constructed research model, many important bits of information can be gleaned from the reports. -New discoveries in the field can then be placed within this broader comparative context.


  1. Fernow 1883[]
  2. Fernow 1883:776[]
  3. Fernow 1883:756[]
  4. Denys 1908[][]
  5. pp. Forgotten Tales of Long Island, Richard Panchyk, 84-85[]
  6. Allen 1920; Wissler 1917[]
  7. Baird 1616[]
  8. Russell 1980[]
  9. Flannery 1939[][]
  10. Butler and Hadlock 1949[]
  11. Wallace 1972[]
  12. Brebeuf 1896-1901[]
  13. Underhill 1965[]
  14. Campbell 1983[]
  15. Lurker 1974[]
  16. Davis 1949[][]
  17. Gimbutas 1982[]
  18. Brinton 1868[]
  19. Sharp 1976[]
  20. Prahl 1967[][]
  21. Cantwell 1980[][]
  22. Wyatt 1982[]
  23. Michael Gramly, Dr Stone personal communication. Gramly supervised these excavations and is in the process of preparing a full report which he expects will be published[]
  24. Wyatt, personal communication[]
  25. David Martine, Shinnecock Timeline pp. 8[]
  26. Ritchie 1959:56[]
  27. Ritchie 1959[]
  28. Harrington 1982:83[]
  29. Kraft 1978[]
  30. Orchard 1977:66-69[]
  31. Harrington 1982:83-90[]
  32. Harrington 1977:1-15[]
  33. Orchard 1977:68[]
  34. Orchard 1977:68[]
  35. Booth 1982:74-60[]
  36. Booth 1982:56[]
  37. Morrison 1982[]
  38. Voegelin 1944:254[]