Indigenous dog’s footsteps….how Rhodesian Ridgeback evolved from canis africanus


WHAT do all these names have in common: Pookie, Taku, Ringo, Sango, Chimoto, Danger, Bingo, Shumba, Simba, Gangeni, Ngalo, Dingo, Chipo, Jabu, Bingo, Ringo, Gringo, Rex, Rambo, Saki, Princess, King, Texas?
All these are common ‘pet’ names and terms of endearment for dogs that allude to the personification and closeness of Zimbabwe’s Shona people to their indigenous dog heritage — one that has for long been inscribed on prehistoric rocks and caves.
The beginnings of the dog began with the beginnings of man.
The simple English dictionary describes ‘dog’ as: ‘a canine mammal of numerous breeds, which is commonly kept as a domestic pet’.
In old English diction dog is also known as the designation of a male wolf or fox.
Dogs are carnivorous animals of the canidae family, similar to dingoes, foxes, wolves, hyenas and jackals.
A dog (canis familiaris), is ,however, a domesticated canine that comes in many breeds in a great variety of forms, sizes and colourations.
The Zimbabwean Shona word for dog is ‘imbwa’; the Ndebele word is ‘inja’.
The association between dogs and humans is the oldest among all the domesticated animals.
For the past 10 000 – 12 000 years, dogs have been closely entwined in man’s life, emotions, myths and fantasies.
According to oral history, when both the San people and the prototype Shona of 300 AD, in their various linguistic groups, acquired the knowledge of animal husbandry manifested in their hunters’ instinct, the resilient indigenous dog breeds were part of this matrix.
During the Stone Age, the first peoples of Zimbabwe, the Khoisan hunter-gatherers kept dogs; prior to the southward migration around the 4th Century.
By the year 800, dogs were part of all indigenous communities.
Impressed on the granite faces of Nanke Cave in the Matopos of Bulawayo, where human occupation is cited as being
4 500 and 1 500 years ago, is a polychrome painting of a hunting dog depicted with short lines from its neck and a long wavy line along the saddle of its back.
The painting is dated as the earliest recorded time that domestic animals are known to have been identified in southern Africa.
There is a general acceptance that dogs were domesticated during the hunter-gatherer period, approximately 12 000 years ago and were well established by the time agricultural villages began to appear 6 000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of Egypt.
Numerous embalmed dogs have been found, signifying that the dog was integral to Ancient Egyptian mythology.
A dog of quite slender built with a ridge down its back is recorded in depictions in an Egyptian tomb (circa 6000 BC).
Common village dogs as well as selectively bred dogs of the aristocracy are known to have flourished throughout Ancient Egypt from Neolithic to the Iron Age.
A similar dog to the Egyptian dog, although less slender, and with a ridge clearly running down the centre of its back, is artistically depicted with a group of San hunters tracking game on the Malilangwe Cave face.
This attests to the origin and ownership of this distinct Khoikhoi dog breed.
Our indigenous Zimbabwean dog, canis africanus, is specifically made by nature to conform to Africa’s conditions.
It is courageous, with tremendous stamina, very loyal and playful. They have also been called African hunting dogs, and are known disparagingly as ‘kaffir dogs’, or ‘umbwa wa ki-shenzi’ from Swahili to imply a traditional dog.
Archaeologists refer to this southern African dog breed common to Zimbabwe, as the ‘canis africanus’; this pre-colonial indigenous Zimbabwean dog was found among the Iocene fossils of pre-historic dogs in the Malilangwe (Marirangwe) cave site of Zimbabwe.
At Nswatugi, a late Stone Age site in the Matopos, where the skeleton of what was probably a Stone Age man was found, are 12 illustrations of dogs identified in individual depictions on the cave walls, where human habitation stretches back 40 000 years.
In circa 3250 BC, by the time the first Pharaoh came to rule, the dog had spread south, beyond the borders of present day Egypt.
Beginning in the 4th Century BC, man, in search of tsetse fly-free grazing for his cattle gradually migrated down the continent, until eventually reaching the southern-most tip of Africa; accordingly, dogs followed the human migration southwards.
As a result, canines are also found to be depicted in caves in the Sudan and Tanzania; however, most canine depictions on caves are to be found in Zimbabwe.
When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama dropped anchor at St Helena Bay in southern Africa late in 1497, he documented: “The dark-skinned people have many dogs like those of Portugal which bark as do these…” — referring to the indigenous people with their domesticated dogs.
‘Canis africanus’ is derived from the genus canis, the Latin word for dog, which has been combined with Africa, the name of the continent.
It is now classified as the ‘Europeanised’ ‘africanis’ — the umbrella name for all sub-equatorial African aboriginal dogs.
These dogs are the embodiment of a people’s history and are
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part of Zimbabwe’s cultural and biological heritage that goes back over 7 000 years.
Most Zimbabwean vernacular dialects are replete with original folkloric proverbs, tales and aphorisms pertaining to the behaviour and field characteristics of dogs as a comparison to human behaviour.
Dogs are viewed as mysterious as they are whimsical, having qualities that traverse physical, moral, animal and human worlds.
In traditional Zimbabwean Shona lore, these sayings: ‘Kurera imbwa nemukaka – inofuma yokuruma’, ‘Imbwa nyoro itsengi dzematovo’ and ‘Imbwa hora haiyihukure nhando’ illustrate indigenous people’s close association with their canine companions.
Interaction between dogs and humans has inexorably entrenched the dog in our society.
Dogs, like humans, are products of both biology and culture, yet it is human culture that defines a dog’s condition, its status and its position.
Their very domestication was of necessity a cultural inevitability; much as the making of tool or weapons together with their continued development.
Canis africanus was the original aboriginal dog of the Kingdom of Munhumutapa; records from 1603 confirm that at the Great Zimbabwe acropolis in Masvingo, the Munhumutapa kept 200 of these faithful dogs that combined attachment to humans with a need for freedom and space.
The geographical distribution of indigenous dogs in this region from the San times transcend the political borders to unite the southern African neighbours with a shared common dog heritage, that of the kingdom or empire of Munhumutapa, with a dog strain known as canis africanus .
Because this breed has traditionally wandered freely around pastoral communities, it has always been close to humans, other dogs, livestock and domestic animals; it has a natural tendency to guard and protect livestock.
In Zimbabwe, they were used extensively as working dogs for locating gold and iron for ancient mine foundries, for hunting and tracking game, herding cattle, locating herbs, ferreting rodents as well as search and rescue.
These dogs followed their master for hours without being tied to a leash.
The old Shona pop song of the 1970s; ‘Hope dzangu dzandishurira amai whe! Zvandakarota imbwa ichitinha mombe’ (I dreamt of dogs herding cattle), testifies to the fact that these dogs lived amicably with cattle, goats and sheep, cats and chickens.
Bound to its human partners and its territory, their instinct of subservience made the canis africanus an easy candidate for domestication by our distant ancestors.
Indeed, in indigenous African culture it was forbidden to tie dogs. Putting dogs on leashes were seen as terrible colonial behaviour; an appalling act never carried out by indigenous Zimbabweans prior to white colonisation.
Because in Shona culture it was taboo to tie dogs, the term ‘imbwa sungata’ – the people who tied down their dogs, was used to describe the Rhodesian oppressors.
Not surprisingly, dogs in Rhodesia, most commonly German Shepherds, were deliberately trained to assist police and other law-enforcement personnel in their work and conditioned to be racist as well as attack African people.
They were used by the dog squad of the colonial Rhodesian police force and later by the Rhodesian army during the Zimbabwe war of liberation against the guerillas.
Dogs in ancient indigenous African culture were known as ‘mhino dzevadzimba’ – the nose of the ancestral hunters.
Hunters were known to always live and move about with their dogs – ‘Vavhimhi vaifamba nembwa dzavo’.
The Zimbabwean dog (canis africanus) was envied for its faithfulness, stealth and formidable knowledge of the terrain that is part of its aboriginal and original landscape.
It is a creature of the blood and soil, uncannily linked to its environment and part of African traditional way of life.
Early European hunter/explorers to the region immediately identified the dog’s potential.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD. in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher.
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