General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 21 Nov 2017/6 Vulture
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Matthew McDavitt

Water-Dog Detective

This article has kindly been specially written for us by Dr. Matthew McDavitt, an attorney and an independent ethnozoologist specializing in the cultural representation of sawfishes worldwide.

The ahuitzotl - friend or foe to the Aztecs? Stone representation, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
The ahuitzotl - friend or foe to the Aztecs? Stone representation, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

In Aztec lore, the ahuitzotl was a dangerous water-dwelling creature associated with the rain god Tlaloc, believed to kill people who ventured near its watery home. But the spectral ahuitzotl could bestow benefits too – Aztec people threw their fingernail clippings into water as an offering to the ahuitzotl, based on the belief that in doing so, the ahuitzotl would make their nails grow out healthy and strong.
But what animal was the ahuitzotl? Can we tell? As developed below, several clues allow us to identify the creature intended.
That the ahuitzotl was a real animal species is indicated by several details included in the accounts of this mysterious, aquatic beast. First, the description in Aztec language (Nahuatl) in the encyclopedic Florentine Codex describes how a woman once caught an ahuitzotl, sealed it in a pot, and brought it to the leaders of her community, who viewed it fearfully before commanding her to release the supernatural creature. Second, several historians writing during the period after the Conquest describe the appearance and habitat of the ahuitzotl with enough detail to determine which animal species to which this name refers.

Stone relief depicting the ahuitzotl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. LOOK CAREFULLY FOR THE HUMAN HAND IN THE TAIL!
Stone relief depicting the ahuitzotl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. LOOK CAREFULLY FOR THE HUMAN HAND IN THE TAIL! (Click on image to enlarge)

When depicted naturalistically, the ahuitzotl is pictured as a small, dog-like animal with a pointed snout, small rounded ears, and a long, thin tail. Sometimes, this tail is shown coiled around into a spiral. Regarding coloration, the ahuitzotl is described as black, or as mottled black and brown or grey. For instance, Francisco Javier Clavijero, a Mexican-born Jesuit teacher and historian who lived during the 1700s described the ahuitzotl as a real creature with a specific habitat:-

The Ahuizotl is an amphibious quadruped, it commonly lives in the rivers of hot countries. The body is one foot in length, the snout is long and sharp, and tail big. His skin is mottled black and brown.

From a jar Tlaloc pours streams of water rich in symbols of fertility; on the inside of this stone casket in the British Museum is an ahuitzotl figure
From a jar Tlaloc pours streams of water rich in symbols of fertility; on the inside of this stone casket in the British Museum is an ahuitzotl figure (Click on image to enlarge)

Clavijero had spent his childhood exploring his native state of Veracruz with Indian children, and had actually seen many of the local animals and plants himself, so his account is both useful and reliable. A second account from 50 years following the fall of Tenochtitlan matches this description. Francisco Hernandez de Toledo, a naturalist and court physician for the King of Spain, was sent to Mexico in the 1570s to document the native flora and fauna, often interviewing native people and recording the Aztec names for the species he described. Like Clavijero, Hernandez described the ahuitzotl as an otter-like animal resembling a small black and grey dog, which was found in the hot lands of southern Mexico.

The Ahuitzotl glyph identifies the Aztec ruler of the same name, Codex Azcatitlan folio 21a
The Ahuitzotl glyph identifies the Aztec ruler of the same name, Codex Azcatitlan folio 21a (Click on image to enlarge)

A final clue comes from an Aztec language dictionary entry. The Franciscan priest Alonso de Molina in his 1571 compendium of Aztec language supplies the term for “to swim underwater”: ahuitzocalaqui, literally, “to enter [the water like an] ahuitzotl”. This charming verb reveals that our enigmatic ahuitzotl dives beneath the surface of its river home.

Ahuitzotl glyphs linked to the emperor Ahuitzotl, Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 39r
Ahuitzotl glyphs linked to the emperor Ahuitzotl, Codex Telleriano-Remensis, folio 39r (Click on image to enlarge)

The most interesting feature of the ahuitzotl depictions in Aztec art is the human hand placed on the end of the tail – what do we make of this strange feature? Interestingly, this hand only appears on some representations of the animal – some depictions, including the more naturalistic style drawings that appear in the Florentine Codex, show no hand on the tail. The hand, it would seem, was merely a visual metaphor, symbolizing the animal’s ability to “grasp” with its tail. How would you show in a drawing that an animal can grasp with its tail? This is exactly how the great German Mesoamerican scholar Eduard Seler interpreted the hand on the tail symbol – this feature merely represented a prehensile tail [a tail that can grasp objects], though Seler incorrectly guessed that the animal intended was a prehensile-tailed creature that does not inhabit the water, the Mexican Hairy Porcupine, Sphiggurus mexicanus.

Ahuitzotl, Aztec emperor, Codex Mendoza, folio 13r
Ahuitzotl, Aztec emperor, Codex Mendoza, folio 13r (Click on image to enlarge)

Combining these various features allows us to identify the mysterious ahuitzotl. We are looking for an animal: (1) the size of a small dog, (2) with small, rounded ears, (3) colored black and brown or grey, (4) that lives in rivers of the hot lands in southern Mexico, and which (5) has a prehensile tail.

There are only two choices, as only two suitably-sized aquatic mammal species live in this region: the Southern River Otter, Lutra longicaudis, and the Water Opossum, Chironectes minimus. The coat of the river otter is solid brown, with a white or yellowish belly, and the otter’s tail is not prehensile. In contrast, the water opossum’s fur is mottled black and grey or brown, and because it is a possum, its tail is prehensile. Clearly, the ahuitzotl is a water opossum!

Water Opossum, ‘Chironectes minimus’, Rio Araza, Camanti-Quincemil, Cusco, Peru. Photo courtesy/by Biologist Julio Miguel Rodriguez Vera
Water Opossum, ‘Chironectes minimus’, Rio Araza, Camanti-Quincemil, Cusco, Peru. Photo courtesy/by Biologist Julio Miguel Rodriguez Vera  (Click on image to enlarge)

The water opossum, also called a yapok or perrito de agua (literally, “little water dog” in Spanish) is the only semi-aquatic marsupial species, preferring clear, fast flowing rivers in hilly country from southern Mexico to Argentina. Their body is about a foot long, covered with water-repellent fur, and they have webbed feet and a prehensile tail over a foot long, a tail used to carry nesting materials. The water opossum makes its den in the bank of the river just above the water line, venturing out at night to swim through the water, groping around with its sensitive, agile hands for its food, crayfish, shrimp, and fish. Mother water opossums protect their young by sealing them in their water-tight pouch when they dive down to forage for food.

The water opossum’s fast-flowing river habitat may explain why the ahuitzotl obtained such a bad reputation as a man-killing animal among the Aztecs – people are more likely to drown when crossing fast flowing rivers, deaths wrongly attributed to the inoffensive ahuitzotl.

NOTE. This identification is not new. Mayan archaeologist Eric Thompson suggested several decades ago in an unpublished manuscript that the mythical ahuitzotl was based upon the real life water opossum -- and it appears that he was right (Nicholson 1983).
Ref: Nicholson, H. B., and Eloise Quiñones Keber. 1983. Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan. Washington: National Gallery of Art.

Picture sources:-
• Stone representations of the ahuitzotl (National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City): photos by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Tlaloc sculpture: © The Trustees of the British Museum
• Ahuitzotl glyphs, Codex Telleriano-Remensis: scanned from our copy of the Eloises Quiñones Keber edition, University of Texas Press, 1995
• Codex Azcatitlan image: private source/public domain
• Water Opossum, Chironectes minimus, Rio Araza, Camanti-Quincemil, Cusco, Peru. Photograph by Biologist Julio Miguel Rodriguez Vera (used with permission).

Our earlier feature on the Ahuitzotl

‘Prehensile tail’ (Wikipedia)
If you’re into ‘My Little Pony’, you’ll have come across the ahuizotl...!
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