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.
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.