LIMA, Peru – Even in ancient Peru, it seems dogs were a man's best friend.
Peruvian investigators have discovered a pre-Columbian culture of dog lovers who built pet cemeteries and buried their pets with warm blankets and even treats for the afterlife.
"They are dogs that were thanked and recognized for their social and familial contribution," anthropologist Sonia Guillen said. "These dogs were not sacrificed."
Since 1993, researchers have unearthed 82 dog tombs in pet cemetery plots, laid alongside human mummy tombs of the Chiribaya people in the fertile Osmore River valley, 540 miles southeast of Lima.
The Chiribaya were farmers who lived from A.D. 900 to 1350, before the rise of Peru's Inca Empire.
"We have found that in all the cemeteries, always, in between the human tombs there are others dedicated to the dogs, full-grown and puppies," said Guillen, who specializes in the study of mummies. "They have their own graves, and in some cases they are buried with blankets and food."
Guillen, director of the Centro Mallqui, the Bioanthropology Foundation of Peru, said the dogs are known as Chiribaya shepherds for their herding abilities.
She and her team are trying to prove the Chiribaya dogs have Peruvian descendants that can be classified as an original South American breed.
"This shepherd is still among us," she said. "We have found very similar animals with the same characteristics in Peru's southern valleys and we are starting investigations to determine if we are dealing with a Peruvian dog."
But some dog experts expressed caution.
Ermanno Maniero, who in 1985 achieved international recognition of the Peruvian hairless as a distinct breed that evolved over more than 2,000 years from Asian ancestors brought across the Bering Strait, said Peru is full of breeds that arrived in recent centuries.
"We have found similar dogs" to the Chiribaya shepherds, he said. "But it is better to take precautions before confirming the existence of a type of original animal."
Ricardo Fujita, a genetics researcher at Lima's San Martin University, said the physical traits suggests a link between today's' short-snouted, long-haired dogs and their possible Chiribaya ancestors. But the jury is still out.
"We are conducting DNA analysis on the ancient dogs to compare them to the new ones, but it will be months before there are results for a final verdict," he said.