The Story of the African Dog -  - ebook

The Story of the African Dog ebook



The African dog, or Africanis, is the original domestic dog of Southern Africa, whose ancient origins can be traced back to the prehistoric wild wolf packs of Arabia and India. This unique and fascinating study recreates for us the journey of the dog's primitive canine ancestors, from it's earliest presence at the fire of Stone Age humans, through the evolution from wolf to protodog to domestic dog and subsequent migration into the African continent with nomadic Neolithic herders.

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The Story

of the

African Dog

The author with Tamboti.

The Story

of the

African Dog


© 2002 Johan Gallant

Print version first published 2002 by University of Natal Press, Scottsville, South Africa

Ebook version by approval of Johan Gallant published 2015 by Kynos Verlag Dr. Dieter Fleig GmbH, Konrad-Zuse-Str. 3, D- 54552 Nerdlen, Germany

ISBN 978-3-95464-045-4

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers.


I dedicate this book to my wife Edith, who has been the untiring driver on all our wonderful field trips and without whom this book could not have happened.




Chapter OneThe Africanis as a Land Race

Chapter TwoThe Africanis Personality Profile

Chapter ThreeOrigins of the Africanis

Chapter FourThe Domestic Dog Conquers Africa

Chapter FiveAncient Pedigrees and Exotic Visitors

Chapter SixThoroughbreds with African Roots

Chapter SevenConserving the Africanis

Appendix OneAptitude Test and Dog Mentality Assessment

Appendix TwoThe Africanis Society of Southern Africa: Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Breeders





I would like to thank the late Joseph Sithole who was my companion during many field trips. Professor Achilles Gautier in Ghent and Dr Wim van Neer at the Museum for Central Africa for their time and advice. Christopher Griffith who went through my chapters as they were written and who encouraged me to persevere. Carol Brammage at the library of the University of Natal who was most efficient when I needed information. Dr Peter Taylor and Leonard Nene from the Durban Natural Science Museum for their help with biological nomenclature and African language terminology. Dr Juliet Clutton-Brock in Cambridge, Dr Ina Plug from Pretoria and Professors Robert Fincham and Barry Lovegrove from the University of Natal for their helpful feedback on the manuscript. A very special thank you to Elana Bregin who edited this book in the most efficient manner, and to the team at the University of Natal Press for wonderful co-operation. Last but not least, to my wife Edith for her patience and the enthusiasm that she shared with me.


The urge to write this book arose out of my longstanding love affair with the African dog and my inner conviction that injustice has been the fate of these dogs. These are the so-called outcast dogs of South Africa, the dogs which are traditionally associated with rural African communities and which have been spurned and disregarded by Western prejudice as the worst kind of disease-ridden mongrels. Through a fortuitous chain of circumstances, I came to experience firsthand the true nature and exceptional qualities of these special dogs and was brought to admit that, in many important aspects, they could more than hold their own with our modern Western breeds. It became clear to me that these dogs had been the target of undeserved prejudice and misconception, and that a serious rehabilitation of attitude was needed.

My first experience with African dogs goes back to 1957 when, as a young lieutenant with the Belgian paratroopers, I travelled extensively through the then Belgian Congo. Dogs in those rural villages were rather scarce, but I was struck by the uniformity in temperament and behaviour among those that I did encounter.

In 1975, my wife Edith and I became fully involved in all aspects of cynology – the study of dogs. This included the breeding, raising and training of dogs, as well as studying their behaviour and history. We developed a good understanding of what modern cynology had achieved, but also failed to accomplish over the past hundred years. This motivated us to learn more about the essence of the dog and the role that it had played in human societies.

It was because of this involvement that I volunteered in 1993 to make a documentary on the work of the mobile clinics of the Durban SPCA. While travelling through the townships, I came across the most incredible bunch of street dogs of all kinds. South Africa was in turmoil at that time, and the townships were full of violent conflict and upheaval. I still entertain the highest respect for Jessica the veterinary nurse and Nicholas her African assistant who, day after day, cared for many animals in distress. It was during these trips that I sporadically came across dogs which reminded me of my encounters with the dogs of the Congo and gave me the incentive to look more deeply into this matter.

Early in 1994 Sian Hall, at the time an anthropology student who needed material for a masters thesis, approached my wife and I with the request to assist her with her fieldwork and research on the ‘indigenous’ dogs of southern Africa. Sian’s approach to us was very fortuitous in that it sparked off an enduring interest. In July 1995, my wife and I decided to continue our research independently. Our work became known as ‘Project Siyakhula’ – meaning ‘we will grow’.

Following our first trip north of the Tukhela river during July 1995, we made contact with Mr Nkwanyana, who was the extension officer in Nkandla at the time. He introduced us to Inkosi Bhekizwe Biyela, Inkatha Freedom Party Member of Parliament, who invited me to his annual meeting with the local chiefs to be held in October that year. The meeting was very successful and I received the chiefs’ blessings to carry out research on the dogs in that area.

On 21 December 1995, under my auspices, a gathering of traditional dogs was organised in Nkandla. It was an unprecedented event and a very successful one. A total of 105 dogs, along with their owners, turned up at the local sport stadium for registration, 91 of them falling into the category of traditional Zulu dogs. Blood samples were taken for comparative analysis, and this has subsequently been used as the basis for a study by Letitia Greyling (2002) investigating the relationship of the African dogs to the original desert bred Saluqis of the Middle East.

It was at this show in Nkandla that my wife and I met Joseph Sithole. He was a traditional healer, herbalist and a keen dog enthusiast and was to become our interpreter during our subsequent trips in Zululand. Joseph had a profound knowledge of the African dogs. He knew the people of the region and the hunters who owned such dogs and always ensured that we were made to feel welcome by all of them. He was also a herbalist, who prepared herbs to help and cure dogs. He died unexpectedly after being hospitalised in Vryheid in 1999. His death is tragic, not just for the loss of the fine person he was, but because of the great wealth of traditional knowledge and experience that died with him.

The late Mr Joseph Sithole (far right).

Building on our research conducted in KwaZulu-Natal, Project Siyakhula expanded its focus to include other areas of southern Africa. We visited dog populations in the Eastern and Northern Cape, including the Kalahari and Namib regions, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, comparing the different types of dogs, making videos, and conducting detailed studies of appearance and behaviour. We also took hair samples with the aim of compiling a DNA profile that could be used to establish the family tree of the Africanis and prove its links with the earliest domestic dogs of the Middle East. These studies are still ongoing.

Interest in our project continued to grow from all quarters. During 1998, Dr Udo Küsel – at that time director of the National Cultural History Museum – joined us in our research efforts. Together, we undertook many field trips. It was during one of these journeys that Dr Küsel came up with the idea of forming an association with the aim of fostering and conserving the traditional African dogs. The inaugural meeting took place on 12 October 1998 at the Willem Prinsloo Agricultural Museum near Pretoria. At the first committee meeting, it was agreed to refer to all traditional southern African dogs as AFRICANIS and the name of the organisation became The Africanis Society of Southern Africa.

Having carried out nine years of research and experienced close companionship with the Africanis, I can assure you that these dogs deserve not only our attention, but also our appreciation and admiration. They are faithful animals with very special qualities – intelligence, resilience and a rustic natural beauty firmly rooted in a functional physique. They are also consistently healthy and resistant to external and internal parasites. This heterogeneous family has, thus far, not been weakened through selective breeding. My purpose in compiling this book is to promote the conservation of the Africanis as one of the last groups of unspoiled primitive dogs left in the world, and also to endorse its exceptional value as a household companion.

I sincerely hope that the research that I have undertaken and the arguments which are reflected in the chapters to follow will assist not only in changing public opinion towards these dogs, but in giving the Africanis what it truly deserves: respect, understanding and love – in return for the thousands of years of undemanding service and loyalty that the dog, in its turn, has bestowed on humankind.


The Africanis as a Land Race

What’s in a name?

The term Africanis is an amalgamation of the words ‘Africa’ and ‘canis’ – the first referring to the continent of Africa, the second to the dog. The scientific name for the domestic dog is Canis lupus familiaris1 – or the wolf in its ‘familiarised’ or domesticated form. The name Africanis is given to the dogs which are the descendants of the earliest domesticated dogs to arrive on the African continent – in particular, those which have since become endemic to subequatorial Africa, i.e. the traditional dogs of the Bantu-speaking, Khoikhoi and San people.2 These are the dogs that have been part of African societies for many thousands of years.

These dogs are not the result of the usual selective breeding techniques that are practised in the West. They evolved quite naturally into a variety of land races, or strains, as a result of spontaneous environmental adaptation. In other words, they adapted physically and mentally to the specific environment in which they were located, as well as to the particular demands and lifestyles of the people with whom they were living. Despite their diversity of appearance, these traditional dogs are all variations on the same theme. At the extreme ends of the spectrum one can compare, for instance, the thick-coated, large, powerful ‘mountain dog’ type of Africanis which evolved in the Lesotho highlands, with the small, rather miserable looking but extremely tough Africanis of the ‘karretjies mense’ (donkey cart people) living in Namaqualand and the Namib and Kalahari deserts. The same canine genes flow through their veins, but the demands of their specific environment and the requirements imposed by the population groups to whom they traditionally belonged were so divergent that they grew naturally into quite different, well adapted, practical shapes and personalities.

Although these dogs may create the impression of belonging to different ‘manmade’ breeds, they all originated from the same ancient heterogeneous gene pool. They emerged from a Nilotic cradle3 which was established nearly 7 000 years ago after the arrival of their prehistoric domestic forefathers on the African continent. As the descendants of these early domestic dogs, they have carried these ancient canine genes all over Africa. Around 2 000 years ago, they crossed the Equator with their owners to finally populate the whole continent. They have been part of African life and culture ever since. Together with their human custodians – first north of the Equator and later to the south – they evolved from Stone Age to Bronze and Iron Age. Consequently, they adapted to hunting, herding and agricultural modes of life.

The robust Lesotho highlander (top) has adapted perfectly to the hardships of a mountainous landscape and associated lifestyle, whereas the inconspicuous Africanis (below), thriving in the arid regions of south-west Africa is, in its way, the toughest, most undemanding and high-endurance type of dog in the world.

Their fate, and the esteem in which they were held, was closely linked to the traditions and religious thinking of the particular societies to which they belonged. As intimate associates of the human race, they have played an important role in the shaping of African lifestyles. They are important not only because of the ancient primeval canine gene pool that they represent, but also because of their close links with various cultural patrimonies.

The stigma of the Kaffir brak

The first written reference to domestic dogs in southern Africa comes from Vasco da Gama’s diarist. On 8 November 1497, the ships of the Portuguese explorers cast anchor on the Cape West Coast in a bay which they called Santa Ellena – St Helena Bay. The crew’s diarist gave a full report of their encounter with the local Khoisan herders and noted: ‘They have many dogs like those of Portugal which bark as do these.‘4

It is interesting to note that the writer did not say that the Portuguese brought dogs with them or bartered dogs with the locals. He simply seemed surprised to see that the dogs of the fifteenth-century Cape herders looked like those back home. No specific name is given, they are simply referred to as dogs.

After Jan van Riebeeck established the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652, travellers and ethnographers steadily advanced deeper into the country and reported, among other matters, on the dogs of the people that they encountered.

Servants attending to fifteenth-century south-European dogs.

(Source: G. Phébus, c. 1490, cited in F. Méry, 1968: 99)

It is interesting to compare the similarity of the Medieval hounds on the previous page with those owned today by herders in the Western Cape.

George McCall Theal, writing on conditions in southern Africa prior to 1505 and describing the cattle and sheep of the Khoisan people, goes on to state: ‘The only other domestic animal was the dog. He was an ugly creature, his body being shaped like that of a jackal, and the hair on his spine being turned forward; but he was a faithful, serviceable animal of his kind.‘5 Kolben, who arrived at the Cape approximately 50 years after the first settlers, reported in 1719 on the Khoisan dogs: ‘They have a small head and a very sharp muzzle. The coat is mouse-grey. They are seldom higher than one el6 and barely one third longer. The ears are erect and sharp. For the rest they have much in common with other dogs, being as tractable as the European dogs. They are particularly very faithful when their masters are in danger from lions, tigers, wolves etc., and for this reason they are well sought after by the Europeans as well as by the Hottentots.‘7

This 1995 picture of a mouse-grey ‘isiqha’ – as they are referred to by their Zulu owners – corresponds perfectly with the descriptions given by Theal and Kolben of a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Khoisan Africanis.

Although the reference to tigers and wolves may cast suspicion on the soundness of Kolben’s zoological knowledge, there can be no doubt that he too compares the local dogs to those in Europe and concludes that they are similar in many aspects.

In the spirit of the times, and in order to differentiate the dogs of the locals from their own dogs – the ‘vuilbaards’ (i.e. dirty beards – the old Flemish name for the ancestors of the present day Bouvier des Flandres) and ‘bullenbyters’ (bull biters) – the Dutch settlers began referring to the local dogs as ‘Hottentot honde’ because Hottentot was the name given to the herder people whom they had encountered at the Cape. There was another population group which, although similar in some respects to the herders, preferred a hunting and gathering lifestyle. The settlers referred to them as ‘boschjesmannen’ (people from the bush), which in Afrikaans became ‘boesman’ and in English ‘bushmen’. Just as the dogs of the so-called Hottentots became known as Hottentot dogs, so the dogs of the Bushmen became known as Bushman dogs.

Present day San (formerly called Bushmen) with their dogs in the Kalahari desert.

When later adventurers pushed to the north-east and across the Kei river, they encountered black African people whom they called ‘kaffers’ or ‘kaffirs’ (from the Arabic word ‘kafir’ meaning heathen or infidel). The country where these people lived became mapped as Kaffraria. Consequently, the dogs who shared the lives of these people were named ‘kaffir dogs’ – in Afrikaans, ‘kaffer honde’ or ‘kaffer brak’. This word ‘brak’ has acquired a pejorative meaning and implies the worst kind of mongrel. This is etymologically incorrect. In many European languages, ‘brak’ refers to hounds of pure-bred stock, for example: Bracco Italiano, Braque d’Auvergne, Steinbracke, etc.

During the settler occupation and colonisation of the Cape, and increasingly throughout the apartheid era, the San, Khoikhoi and Bantu-speaking people were considered to be inferior and treated accordingly. This attitude had inevitable repercussions for their livestock and even more so for their dogs. Even today, although most South Africans are uncomfortable with the word ‘kaffer’, terms like ‘kafferbrak’ or ‘kafferdog’ are still in common use in certain parts of the country.

A typical African homestead with its owners and house dog.

When, in 1998 a society was established with the aim of conserving and fostering the traditional dogs of southern Africa, one of its urgent priorities was to find a name which would simultaneously lift the pejorative connotation and accurately describe the subject. It was Dr Udo Küsel who, during a broadcasting session on the subject with Hennie Maas of the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation), came up with the name Africanis. It has since become widely accepted as an umbrella term for the dogs.

Traditional naming systems among African owners

It is important to realise that in African society, the historical custodians of the various types of Africanis have never intentionally bred or selected their dogs for external or cosmetic characteristics, as has become the standard practice in the West. It was natural environmental adaptation, which included the human factor, that developed the Africanis into an array of land races with different subtypes. African culture does, however, have its own way of categorising its dogs. There is a complex denomination system, which classifies dogs descriptively into a range of ‘types’, according to external appearance, physical and mental disposition, or utilitarian function (see Textbox 1). A pup is usually not classified at birth. Only later in life, when it begins to display its particular tendencies, will it be named as a specific type.


Examples of descriptive names used for dogs

In Zulu

isiqha: powerful, medium sized, most common dog

isimaku: small, shortlegged type

ichalaha: big, male dog, taller than isiqha, fast and slender

isigola: slender, medium sized dog that is lazy to hunt

ixhonti: refers to a long or wiry coat

ubhova: heavy-skulled dogs with a big mouth

ibhansi and itswili: cross between Greyhound and traditional dog, used for hunting

In Xhosa

itwina: very typical slender hound of medium size

ibaku: a taller, heavier dog usually with hanging ears

ingeke: a smaller type, often because of short legs, comparable with the isimaku

ingesi: indicates a mixture with exotic (English) breeds

iBaku, itwina and ingeke in the former Transkei.

In South Sotho

lekesi: dog used to hunt hares

lebeletoko: big heavy dog

ntja e liqholo-qholo: very lean dog

mcle: small dog with short legs

In addition to these descriptive category names, African owners give their dogs individual ‘call’ names. As in Western society, these names very often will relate to some characteristic of appearance or behaviour. Adrian Koopman, in his most recent work, Zulu Names (2002), cites as an example a dog called uQobo – ‘the real thing’ – which was given his name when the father of the household heard this dog bark for the first time and allegedly said: ‘Now that is what I call a genuine dog.’ Another was uDeda – ‘get out of the way’. This dog was not, as one might expect, a ferocious dog, but a fast-running hunter, who ‘got of the way of ‘ (i.e. raced ahead of) the other dogs when pursuing the prey.8

There is a further aspect to the choice of dog names. According to Koopman, the naming of dogs in these societies also has a socio-cultural dimension. An example he gives is the name uBafazi, meaning ‘women (have been talking about me)’.9 Each time the dog’s name is uttered aloud, it conveys a subtle message or social comment to the family or neighbours. Koopman also points out that during the last few decades it has become customary to adopt names from the English language, for example uRex, uSmash, uDanger.10 In the Western Cape, among African people whose second language is Afrikaans, I have come across call names such as Vegter and Wagter.

Physical diversity of the Africanis

Throughout the twentieth century, Western culture has pursued a very biased policy with regard to dog genealogy. Since the inauguration of modern dogdom in 1873 with the establishment of The Kennel Club in London, the understanding and evaluation of dogs has been guided by a rigidly Victorian approach, insisting on breed purity inspired and exemplified by human aristocracy and thoroughbred horses. Over the past 100 years, dogs have increasingly been selectively bred and classified into well defined ‘breeds’. Pups which result from a mixture of two breeds are referred to as cross-bred. Dogs which do not fit the international nomenclature of dog breeds are categorised as mongrels with no value or status. We tend to forget that before there were pure-bred, pedigreed dogs, our ancestors lived for thousands of years with an array of natural breeds or land races.

This modern tendency towards standardised dogs has not necessarily been guided by either cynological knowledge or respect for the species. Instead, it has been inspired and dic tated by fashion, human preference and cosmetic urges. Fortunately for the Africanis, it has never been submitted to the Victorian straitjacket. On the contrary, Victorian society despised it. The happy result was that it was left in its ‘natural’ land race state. It was not submitted to the ‘fashion breeding’ and other artificial refinements that most other breeds have endured. Neither was it subject to cross breeding, since only dogs from the same area, and therefore land race, were available to pair with each other. The ultimate trump card of the Africanis is reflected in its code of arms and reads: ‘Shaped by Africa for Africa’. I stress again that this ‘shaping’ happened completely independently of any interference from modern cynology, and that is what gives the Africanis its unique genetic advantage.

It is essential that we understand that the Africanis has no breed standard in the cynological sense of the word. Nobody has ever laid down how the Africanis should