AFRICANIS: THE DOG OF AFRICA
THEY WERE ONCE DISMISSED AS CROSSBREEDS AND MONGRELS. THEY ARE THE AFRICANIS, ALSO CALLED THE AFRICANIS NGUNI DOG, THE INDIGENOUS DOG OF AFRICA AND ARE INTELLIGENT, HARDY, ATHLETIC, LOYAL – AND ANCIENT.
You’ll see them in the villages of rural South Africa – medium-sized, slender built dogs, with elongated snouts, pointed ears, short coats in a variety of colours and springy up-curled tails.
Some dismiss them as mongrels and curs. But these dogs are a distinct Landrace, endemic to Africa and with a proven lineage going back some 7,000 years.
AfriCanis dogs have always been valued by the indigenous people of Southern Africa for their hardiness, intelligence, loyalty and hunting ability. But it was only in the 21st century that they began to lose the Western stigma of “mongrel”, thanks to the work of two men: dog experts Johan Gallant and Joseph Sithole.
For years Gallant and Sithole along with archaeologist Dr Udo Küssel roamed rural KwaZulu-Natal, Venda, Transkei, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland studying and photographing the dogs they came across in traditional rural homesteads. After DNA testing was carried out, they concluded that these animals
were not a disarray of mongrels but members of a coherent “Landrace” with a specific African genome.
They decided on the name for this African landrace: “canis” (dog) and “Africa”, the AfriCanis. Gallant’s research, together with Joseph Sithole’s knowledge about traditional dogs, resulted in Gallant writing the book: The Story of the African Dog, published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press in 2002.
“The Africanis is the real African dog – shaped by Africa, for Africa,” Gallant says in the book. “It is part of the cultural and biological heritage of Southern Africa.”
The Africanis is descended from dogs pictured in ancient cave art and on Egyptian murals. The earliest remains of the domesticated dog in Africa was found in the Nile Delta and dated to 4,700 BC, and from there spread all over Africa.
NATURAL SELECTION WITHOUT HUMAN INTERVENTION
What makes the Africanis unique is that the dog was shaped by natural, not human, selection. Unlike Western dog breeds, whose appearance and disposition have been determined by the specific breed standards of the Kennel Clubs, the Africanis evolved to survive in the often harsh conditions of Africa.
“The Africanis is the result of natural selection and physical and mental adaptation to environmental conditions,” Gallant says. “It has not been ‘selected’ or ‘bred’ for appearance. For centuries, the fittest and cleverest dogs survived to give us one of the rare remaining natural dog landraces in the world.”
Also unlike Western breeds, the Africanis does not have a rigidly uniform appearance, although Gallant and Sithole have identified the common traits that define the landrace. “The beauty of this dog is embodied in the simplicity and functionality of its build,” Gallant says.
The Africanis is of medium size and well-muscled. It is agile and supple and can run at great speed.The coat is short, and comes in a wide range of colours, with or without markings. A ridge of hair is sometimes seen on the back – one of the Africanis’s genetic contributions to the Rhodesian Ridgeback.
The head is cone-shaped, with expressive oval eyes. Its slender build is sometimes wrongly attributed to starvation.When in good condition, the animal’s ribs are just visible. Because the Africanis has roamed freely in and around rural settlements for centuries, it has a need both for space and for human companionship.
“Traditionally it is always close to humans, other dogs, livestock and domestic animals,” Gallant says. “Africanis is well disposed without being obtrusive: a friendly dog, showing watchful, territorial behaviour. The dog displays unspoiled social canine behaviour with a high level of facial expressions and body language. Its nervous constitution is steady, but the dog is always cautious in approaching new situations. In other words: it displays a high survival instinct.”
HOW DID THE AFRICANIS GET HERE?
Genetic evidence has shown that dogs are descended from an ancient species of wolf.The evolution from wolf to dog was slow and uneven, but generally determined by one thing: their association with people. Over millennia they evolved from wild hunters to scavengers looking for scraps around human settlements until, finally, they became our domesticated best friend. Research has found that the dog was domesticated about 15,000 years ago.
But how did the Africanis land up on the southern tip of the continent?
It is generally accepted that the earliest domesticated dog occurred in East Asia, and China specifically, before migrating west with early Neolithic people, continuing their migration route to the Middle East, along what is known as the Silk Route. It took three millennia for the dogs to cross the Sinai Desert in order to reach Africa. Archaeological evidence shows that the dogs accompanied nomadic stock keepers and crossed into Africa in 700 BC.
The earliest record of domestic dogs – Canis familiaris – on the African continent are fossils found in the Nile estuary and dated to 4,500 BC.
Even before the time of the Egyptian dynasties, domestic dogs spread quickly along the Nile River. Seasonal migrations and trade also took them into the Sahara and Sahel. Early iron- Age Bantu speaking people brought their domestic dogs along when, from about 200 AD, they left the grasslands of Cameroon in a massive migration which eventually led to their settlement in Southern Africa.
The dogs accompanied these people in their long migration southwards, where they were acquired by indigenous San huntergatherers and Khoi pastoralists.The earliest evidence of domestic dogs in Southern Africa dates back to 570 AD, and was found on the farm Diamant on the Lapalala River near the Botswana border. By 650 AD the dog is found in the lower Tugela Valley, and by 800 AD in a Khoisan settlement at Cape St Francis, indicating that contact between the Bantu and Khoisan had been established.
The evidence that the Africanis is a distinct landrace, and not a mongrel of Western types, is increasingly clear. A good thousand years before any possible Western influence, the people of Southern Africa were using these multi-purposeful dogs that had become endemic to the region.
THE AFRICANIS SOCIETY
Some foreign influence on the traditional dogs came with the colonisation of the Transkei and Zululand in the 19th century. Later, migrant labourers brought Western dogs back from the cities, where they bred with local dogs.
Particularly favoured was the Greyhound, which migrants would have come across at the dog races popular at the time. Migrant mine workers brought these home and crossed them with their traditional dogs to develop hardier, stronger, and bigger dogs to use for coursing or sports hunting.They are often called “Ibhanzi” and are not considered to be traditional dogs by the indigenous people.
Today, the true AfriCanis is mostly found in rural areas. A fastchanging South Africa, urbanisation and loss of significance for the traditional dog poses a threat to their survival.
The AfriCanis Society was established to conserve this ancient and valuable canine gene pool and to advise the traditional custodians of this landrace of the importance of their dogs. The society is strictly a conservation body, launched in 1998 by Gallant and Dr Udo Küsel, director of the National Cultural History Museum.
“The AfriCanis, or AfriCanis Nguni Dog, is part of Africa’s unique heritage and biodiversity, and deserves recognition and protection,” Gallant says. One of the rare landraces still surviving in the world, the society’s purpose is to conserve a natural dog – not to “develop” them into a breed, by selectively breeding them for specific external appearances, like most purebred dogs.
It maintains a code of ethics, guidelines for breeding, regulations and a procedure for registration, as well as a register of inspected and approved Africanis dogs. The society also helps members obtain true AfriCanis puppies. So if you’re looking for a hardy and intelligent dog, that is trainable and loves to run, this could be the dog for you.
For more information, please visit the AfriCanis Society at www.africanis.co.za.