AFRICAN DOGS – EVOLUTION AND INFLUENCES THAT SHAPED THE BREEDS


Many breeds and types of dogs originated on the African continent. The earliest evidence for domesticated dog in Africa has to be the remains of three dogs found at Merimda beni Salama, a site in the western Nile delta. This settlement appears to have been occupied from about 4900-4300 B.C. On the other hand, the earliest skeletal evidence for domesticated dogs in South Africa comes from the settlement Diamant, dating to around 550 A.D. However, 300 years before the first conclusive evidence for dog at Diamant, Khoi pastoralists kept sheep at Spoegrivier in the Northern Cape Province. If Khoi populations obtained sheep , then why not also dogs?  But there are very few dog remains on Khoi sites. Archaeologists have generally assumed that it is because the Khoi did not have dogs at this early period, but these assumptions do not appear to be true. Rather, dog remains are hardly visible on Khoi and Bushman sites because these people did not disperse their dead dogs with their food remains in the same manner as Bantu-speaking agriculturists did.  Nor did the Khoi eat their dogs. No, the dogs of Khoi were almost certainly left to die in the vastness of the open veld, perhaps to be cleaned up by predators. Yet there is circumstantial evidence, in the form of bits and pieces of bone gnawed and mouthed by carnivores, found on pastoralist sites such as De Kelders which provides us with some evidence for the occurrence of domesticated dogs as far south as the Western Cape Province at about 360 A.D. This would then mean that Khoi pastoralists already kept dogs right at the tip of Africa roughly two centuries before Iron Age populations introduced dogs to South Africa almost 900 miles to the north.

 

HOW TRADE INFLUENCED AND SHAPED THE DOGS OF AFRICA

The east coast trade had a tremendous influence on African dogs, including both Indian and Arabic contacts possibly dating before 100 A.D, and the more militant Portuguese trade from about 1400 to 1700 A.D.  It is likely that both Islamic and Portuguese traders brought with them desert sighthounds of the Saluki and Sloughi type, and of the Mediterranean  sighthounds such at the Ibizan, Pharaoh and Podenco Canario.  We know that the first settlers in Africa brought English Greyhounds as companions, protectors and helpers in the hunt. These were immediately recognized by African groups as highly efficient hunting dogs and they were interbred with indigenous dogs, thus changing the look of a large percentage of Africa’s indigenous canines. Even to this day Greyhound-type dogs are highly sought after by Africa’s indigenous population and are steadily replacing indigenous dog types.

 

LIFESTLYE  INFLUENCES ON AFRICAN DOG BREEDS

Early man and early canid’s life together must have been a far and free roaming existence, following in the tracks of the vast herds of ungulates of the savannahs. Dogs fit well with the nomadic lifestyle where great distances were covered in search of game. Dogs were needed to drive the herds, guard the camps, and as an aid in the hunt. The effects of a nomadic ancestry is very evident in the behavior of some African dogs. The Rhodesian Ridgeback, a descendant of the nomadic Khoi dog, regards people as much more important than property. The Ridgeback guards territory because it belongs to his family, not simply because he is territorial. It was probably difficult for nomadic dogs to develop a strong sense of territory when their home milieu changed every few weeks. On the other hand, although he shares a nomadic ancestry, the Caanan Dog of Israel is largely territorial. He will guard the humans simply because they come with the territory.  Between these two extremes, the highly territorial and the nomad, lies the dogs of the Bantu-speakers. These dogs defended their home ground and property no matter who inhabited it.

The dog provided much of the materials needed for clothing, utensils, weapons, and trade, and even played an important role in religion and ritual for nomadic hunters. Dogs were also important in the physical, mental and emotional training of boys in their preparation for manhood. When these young initiates were secluded in mud huts in the wilderness, dogs accompanied them for companionship and to help in the pursuit of game. As the seclusion could last for months at a time, the boys came to rely upon their dogs. Bushman dogs are often well-fed, clean and satisfied animals. The dog is treated as an essential member of the hunter-foraging band. Hunter-gatherers in Africa tend to treat their dogs with much greater kindness than the more settled agriculturalists. In agricultural societies the dog is often regarded as an outcast, a revolting object which lives on the fringes and feeds off garbage. This is the true pariah dog.

With social complexity and the development of high density settlements came domestication and specialization of animals, never more evident than in the form of the dog. By the time of the Middle Kingdoms (around 2000 B.C.) there were a number of highly specialized and recognizable dog breeds in Egypt, including tremendous differentiation within the sighthound group. Within the mounds of ruins in Egypt, archaeologists have uncovered the remains and images of Greyhound types, mastiff or large sheep dog types, a smaller spitz-type of dog, and smaller pet dogs such as the Bichon-type.

Modernization brought with it a hankering for material culture and western goods, for city life. There is an increasing trend to drift to urban centers. In the squalor of the ever-growing shack towns, native dog breeds that were once important in so many cultures in Africa have been neglected, ill-treated, and even cast out of society. Impoverished urban drifters certainly do not value their dogs. In recent years many of Africa’s breeds have become better known in the outside world. Yet it is essential that western enthusiasts resist the temptation to mold African dogs according to western standards and expectations and keep in mind the work for which the African dog was intended.

Condensed from Chapter 1 of Dogs of Africa by Sian Hall. © 2003 by Sian Hall. Published by Alpine Publications, ISBN 978 157779 039 6.  Currently out of print. Available only as a pdf file from Alpine Publications  .

 

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