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.


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.”


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.


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

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