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History and Origins of the Rhodesian Ridgeback

The earliest known history of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is thought to derive from ancient Ethiopia or the Southern Sudan. There exists a drawing in an Egyptian tomb dating back to about 3500 - 4,000BC depicting a hound type dog, with somewhat drooped ears and what looks to be a ridge on its back. It is convincing that this is the origin of the ancestor dog that was domesticated by the Hottentot tribal peoples of the African veldt.

History of the Rhodesian Ridgeback

By the 1500s we find ample support describing dogs dwelling in South Africa "bearing a ridge of hair growing in a forward direction along the spine". There are several eyewitness accounts that the aboriginal Hottentots, known also as the "Quena" or "Khoi-khoi" tribal peoples, made common use of these semi-wild dogs for the hunt on the African veldt.

The recorded history of the Rhodesian Ridgeback becomes much more prominent around the 16th century, when the first European man, a Portugese settlor, explored the interior lands on the Cape of Good Hope South Africa. During his travels he observed a "domesticated dog living with the Hottentots, having the notable peculiarity of hair on his spine being turned forward". Eventually, this is the trait that would become known as the "ridge."

It has never been conclusively decided where this oddity of the ridge originated. Dogs bearing the same escutcheon were also discovered on the island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam, where they are believed to have migrated with Siamese peoples around 1000 years ago. Nevertheless, all historical sign-posts seem to point to it's origination in South Africa and that at least a few of these dogs with ridges traveled with Arab merchants and settlers from South Africa to the island of Phu Quoc.

Early Ridgebacks looked like "Jackals"

It cannot be said that the Hottentot dog looked anything at all like the Ridgeback of today. There is a contemporaneous artist depiction of Hottentot dogs displaying a ridge that can be found in a publication by David Livingstone entitled  "A Livingstone's Missionary Travels in South Africa", which was in circulation in 1857.  In the forefront of the book there is a canine engraving that has similar appearance to a hyena, or a jackal and unmistakeably exhibits a ridge of hair along its spine.

History tells us of of anotherEarly Ridgebacks looked like jackals observer - George McCall Theal - who, while preparing a written work on the Hottentot tribes in 1910, described the dog as "ugly in appearace" and  having the "body structure of  a Jackal, or even a Hyena".

A few years Later in 1935 a professor of the historical study of dogs, Ludvic von Schulmuth, made an important discovery which would confirm the earlier observations of Livingstone and Theal. During an archeological pursuit at "Orange River", he uncovered several well preserved dogs amongst the remains of the Hottentots. One of these dogs were in such a favorable mummified condition that the vertical ears, long bushy tale and the "ridge" on the dog was unmistakable. He also concluded from these skeletal remains that the physique of the dog appeared to resemble a Jackal.

"Africanis" as the half-domesticated dogs are now classified, had a very unappealing stature, and was probably a homely dog at best. The credit for the handsome and upstanding conformation of present day Ridgebacks can be attributed to the mixing of the personal foundation stock of the Early European "Boers" with the "jackal" typed dogs of South Africa.


A Special Dog is Needed for Life on the Veldt


Dogs played an important part in the lives of the early
Dutch, Portugese, German, and Huguenotsettlers in Southern Africa. It wasn't long before they  realized their need of a specific kind of dog, capable of a variety of abilities to assist them with their new life in the Veldt. Several breeds of dog were tried with limited success. Among these were Danes, Mastiffs, Greyhounds, Salukis, Bloodhounds and other breeds that had originally accompanied them to the new frontier. Although these breeds had well honed talents, they were bred for much narrower tasks and were not as adaptable to the diverse problems that the African veldt could present. In contrast, The Aboriginal dog was able to navigate hard rocky terrain, without being thwarted by hard, rocky, burry and prickly ground cover - all while circumventing the consequences of parisites and poisonous vermin alike. The Hottentot dog was an agile, hardy and formidable hunter, uniquely suited for the harsh environment, and soon gained the respect of the Europeans.

Hunting Ability

The settlers were pragmatic, needing a dog that could flush game birds, take down a wounded stag, or guard the farm from marauding animals and prowlers during the twilight hours. The settlers also took issue with the occasional lion that could ravage the country side making havoc of life and property. It was during the seasonal weather changes where moisture was scarce, that marauding animals became more prolific, causing them to leave their normal habitat in search of food, thereby endangering the welfare of the settlers. A dog capable of tracking, harassing, and cornering large animals - usually lion therefore became necessary. It was this baying, or "cornering" effort  that would then afford the settler/hunter the opportunity to close in on the animal in order to overcome the poor accuracy rifles of those days. Such an animal would have to have courage and superior intellect, intuitively and physically able to outwit the king of beasts, while keeping out of the deadly reach of tooth and claw.

Southern Africa is noted for wide changes in temperature, from the heat of the day to nights below freezing. The pursuit of animals such as a lion could take several days. This required a dog that could withstand the multitude of weather conditions that the African bush could introduce.  Thus the need for a hunting dog capable of good  endurance, tracking for many miles several hours a day without shelter or water was important.

Trustworthy Companion

The frontiersman had necessity for a companion that would stay close by him while he slept in the bush and also a dog that would be devoted to his family. Slowly a limited combination of breeds were introduced to the native Hottentot dogs to achieve an animal ideally suited for the variety of weather conditions, stamina, and agility required during the hunt, as well as loyalty of temperament to owners and property. Thus, shear necessity, motivated these settlers, and by selective breeding between dogs which they had brought with them from home countries and the half-wild ridged dog of the Hottentot tribes, a new breed began to evolve.

The Breed becomes more firmly established

From the early 1700's until the early-to-mid 1800's, European immigration was closed completely, ending the importation of additional dogs of these or any other breed. Good quality hunting dogs  became scarce, thereby reducing the overall supply of available stock. Consequently the monetary and practical value of such animals became high. It was during this scarcity that the yet to be named "Rhodesian Ridgeback"  gained more attention, and a concentrated effort began in earnest to develop a dog with the appropriate characteristics for the daily demands that African life exacted.

Writings by people from nearby colonies commented on the Ridged KhoiKhoi dogs and the various derivative results of the crossing of the European dogs with them. One fellow a Mr. Kolben noted in his journals that there was:
"also another kind of domesticated dog that the Hottentots (Khoi Khoi), besides employing them for hunting also use them for protection". He further commented that the dogs were "highly valued" by the Europeans who made "constant use" of these dogs for for protection from Wolves, Lions and Hyenas.

During this time frame, we know that several breeds were mixed with the Khoi Khoi (Hottentot) dogs. Kolben goes on to say that "Once the Europeans had recognized the hunting and protective instincts of the Khoikhoi dog, they started using them and crossing with various European breeds".

A couple of vagaries of the breed emerged, depending on whether one hailed from the North, or from the South of Rhodesia. It appears that the Northern variety were somewhat larger than those of the southern country, and was probably due to the introduction of the Grand Dane to the mix. However, of interesting note is that the original Standard speaks more of moderation of size and thus seems to favor the Southern model.

The dog becomes a legend: The African Lion Hound

Toward the end of the 1800s, the dog had already accumulated a great many of the attributes that it would later possess, and early renditions by artists shed a great deal of light on this fact. A painting depicting the breed was discovered in about 1896 which gives a good indication of what the breed looked like and supports the fact  that the breed today still retains a great deal of the physical attributes that it had then. Early Rhodesian Ridgeback

Historical records inform us that there were certain individuals that gained respect for what their efforts accomplished in refining certain identifying characteristics of the new breed for circumstances on the Veldt. It will be these people that make the final indelible marks on the history of the breed. Most notably, Cornelis Van Rooyen

By the mid 1800's, the exploits of this versatile and brave dog became legendary, and they eventually came to be known as the "African Lion Hound", or "African Lion Dog". This title persisted until about the 1920s.


The legendary "African Lion Hound"

The Hottentot dogs of the African Veldt played the most significant part in the final outcome of the new breed characteristics. Throughout all of the breeding and crossbreeding between the native Hottentot dogs and those of the settlers, attention to the ridge of the Hottentot dog was respected and retained.

Prepared, Researched and Written by:
Mark Shirley
Rhapsody Rhodesian Ridgebacks

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Other Good reading: "Origins of the Ridgeback".