During the 15th and 16th centuries, the indigenous Khoi Khoi peoples (previously known as Hottentots) were settled ubiquitously in the Cape of South Africa. Their companions were faithful, serviceable dogs that somewhat resembled jackals but possessing a peculiarity of hair growing in the opposite direction along their spines. Archeological evidence seems to indicate that the Khoi Khoi, whilst making their lengthy migration from the Southern fringes of Egypt, might have brought along with them their long-horned cattle, fat-tailed sheep, and very likely, their faithful hunting dogs. Superfluous ownership of animals was highly unlikely for the harsh lifestyles the natives endured, insuring that only a dog would be tolerated that was useful to the tribe’s existence. Mostly utilized for hunting and protection, these mouse-colored dogs with erect ears measured about 18 – 19 inches at the withers. Observers of the dogs during this period were fascinated by their fearless protective natures when threatened by lion and leopards. While on the hunt, the dogs remained silent – never revealing the presence of the hunters with barking. As Europeans began settling the Cape, they too recognized the value of this unique, ridged dog and desiring to acquire some for themselves, they tried to bribe their owners to part with them in exchange for tobacco… apparently no barter was ever successful!
As the tribes migrated from their their original settlements, their populations were distributed widely throughout the region. Because of the fact that there are no records precisely pinpointing the movement and development of these early Rigeback-type dogs; much is taken from African legend and speculation. Bits and pieces come to us from a variety of sources. For example, along the eastern coastline, the Zulus appreciated dogs “with snake marks on their backs” and they held the dog in high esteem for its’ courage.
As the colonization of the Cape continued throughout the 1600s and 1700s, some of the settlers took a keen interest in a practical dog for life on the veldt, and they began crossing-breeding European and African dogs. Although there aren’t many descriptions of the progeny, it is generally believed that there were a good number of ridged dogs, which were commonly known as “Boerhounds”. These ridged dogs were so familiar to the inhabitants of those days that few people bothered to take much notice of them, let alone record their occurrence in journals. Dog record keeping didn’t have much meaning to people in that time and environment. Reliability and utility being the main considerations, conformation and beauty was not considered at all important and the ridge was nothing more than an oddity. By the time the Voortrekkers began to spead across other territories, the “verkeerderhaar”, or “dogs with incorrect hair”, were already loyal family companions that served as both brave hunters and devoted bodyguards. With the advent of long-range rifles as the weapon of choice, and the near extinction of the lion, cheetah and leopard, these ridged dogs were found mostly staying at home and performing as farm dogs.
The breed started becoming established as we know it today during the 1800s, during which time its hunting abilities and guarding capabiltities were highly regarded. In 1870, a group of enthusiasts gathered together in Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe), and under the orchestration of Rev. Charles Helm, they formulated the beginnings of a standard that would direct the type towards a recognized breed. Having two ridged dogs that had accompanied the Reverend from the Cape, the dogs were put to the test in a hunting environment and found to be very well suited for the purpose. In those days Rhodesia was lion country and there was no room for pets without the stomache for a feline encounter.
Cornelius van Rooyen, a renowned big-game hunter, acquired and bred these two dogs to various excellent hunting dogs, thus beginning the premeditated breeding of ridged hunters according to a specific type. The dog’s popularity increased very rapidly, especially amongst the farming and hunting community, and within a short while was dubbed “van Rooyen’s dogs”. As the dog became more popular, it wentn through a variety of monikers – “African Lion Hound” and “Van Rooyen Lion Dog”, before settling with the name “Rhodesian Ridgeback”.