The story of the Basenjis is one of the biggest romances and mysteries of the canine world. Most of it is still unknown and although it makes little difference to the value of a dog, it is human nature to be curious about the evolution of a breed. Especially when it comes to the one like the Basenjis, which has preserved its identity in the depths of Africa during countless ages, and obviously had a history when civilization was still in its infancy.
We can trace Basenjis from the Stone Age to the present day, and it is with the hope of further knowledge surfacing in the years to come that these scraps of information have been pieced together.
Recent DNA testing proves the long-held theory that the Basenji is one of the oldest dog breeds on earth and its domestication began in Africa.
6,000 B.C. cave paintings in Libya depict Basenji-like dogs. Basenjis have lived with the Pygmy tribes in Central Africa for thousands of years in the area that runs from the Congo Basin to South Sudan. The Egyptians had Basenjis shown in relics from as early as 3000 BC. Their curled tails and pricked ears are clearly shown. And they appear to be wearing the typical hunting bells still used in Africa.
Photos from Mereuka’s Tomb in Egypt
Egyptians are indeed counted as some of the oldest dog breeders in the world. One of the possible but controversial theories is that by crossing dogs and jackals a basenji type dog was created. “Jackals and Basenjis do not mate except when under human influence, even if they might have ample opportunity to do so.” (Professor Dr. sc. Senglaub Wildhunde Haushunde Urania Vlg.)
Jackal and Basenji: It is noteworthy that the Basenji paws are different from those of other canine species: their middle toes are partially grown together. It is assumed that Basenjis carry some Jackal genes. A Jackal is a member of any of three small to medium-sized species of predators of the genus Canis, found in Africa.
They turned up in Mesopotamia centuries later and the Metropolitan Museum of Art own a bronze statue of a Basenji type dog complete with curled tail and wrinkled forehead which is identified as Babylonian, 1500 B.C.
The Basenji lent their ears to the dog – headed god Anubis
Maybe the Egyptians in the age of the Pharaohs, are the earliest breeders of Basenjis in the world. Possible Basenjis were bred as family dog or hunting companion.
The first drawings of the type were found in the tombs of the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), built approx. 2700 BC in the IV Dynasty.
They show small dogs sitting near the feet of their owners or under the chairs. Amongst other tomb furnishings of rich Egyptians and Pharaohs were statues and illustrations of these dogs, which, due to its extremely cat like nature (it moves silently, it is free from dog smells and washes itself like a cat) was highly prized by this civilized nation.
Presumably the first Basenjis reached Egypt as gifts from the Pygmies to the Pharaohs. With the decline of the Egyptian culture, the knowledge about the Basenji also disappeared.
Another presumption is that the Basenjis reached Central Africa as war trophies; Egypt had lost a war against the Sudan and the victors required for their people the at-that-time most valuable things, namely, precious metals, woman and dogs.
With the downfall of Ancient Egypt, knowledge about Basenjis disappeared.
“Dogs are probably the oldest domesticated animals.”
Basenjis were used by men as helpers and during a hunt occasionally were fed some unwanted bits of meat. They had to be able to independently take care of their food and survival.
Basenjis are early dogs that howl (“yodel”) instead of bark (compare wolf and jackal). They are known in the Bantu language Kiswahili as Schensi dogs. Schensis are among the oldest members of the Canis familaris race. The name Basenji is derived from the Bantu language. Schensi dogs live in the equatorial zone, the hoe-farming culture. Schensis are identifiable by erect ears, reddish fur, and short hair. They were made useful in hunting. In contrast to the Pariahs who live independently from humans, Schensis belong to a person, have a name and are valued either for personal reasons (family dog, hunting dog) or because of their market value. Basenjis live in a pack with their tribes, but they must be clever to find enough food for survival.
Schensi dogs cave paintings Teshouinat
Basenji Schensi-dog in Africa today.
Basenji-type Schensi dogs live in the equatorial zone of Africa under similar conditions and relationship with the tribes like in the Philippines, on Sumatra with the Bakta, on West Papua with the Korowai and on Borneo with the Dayak.
Basenjis are hunting helpers at the Efe and the BaAka. The pygmies trained basenjis as hunting dogs for their settled neighbors, the Bantus, and got food especially bananas therefore.
In the then still fertile Sahara Savannah landscape inhabited by nomads, wild animals were domesticated. The nomads began to raise domestic animals, the first of which probably was the dog, because it was helpful in hunting.
Due to climate change (brought about by changes of the direction of the monsoon winds) Sahara Desert developed and the early men migrated with their Basenji-like hunting dogs to the Nile. The people became settlers.
As a consequence of the last climate change in Sahara about 1000 years ago, humans migrated south with their Basenji-type hunting dogs. It was the beginning of the relocation of the Bantu, a migration of considerable magnitude. The Bantu moved toward the east to the large lakes and penetrated south into the Congo forest region, the Ituri Rainforest. The latter today is the remaining habitat of Pygmies and their Basenjis. Basenjis inhabit two different climate zones, the savannah and the rain forest. Basenjis’ coat differs according to climate conditions. Some Basenjis develop a thicker fur than those who do not need it. Through targeted breeding, these differences unfortunately and gradually are getting lost.
In some African tribes Basenjis are known as ” talking dogs “. Other names are “M’bwa Shenzi” or “M’bwa M’Kubwa M’bwa” translated up and down jumping dogs. You may observe your Basenjis in the field.
In some areas of Africa, it is believed that dogs including Basenjis stole ” The Fire ” for the gods. In some African tribes they are known as ” talking dogs ” or ” witches’ dogs “. The more Basenjis the Medicine man owns, the stronger his powers and healing skills. Dogs, including Basenjis, have always been used as sacrifices in ritual ceremonies.
Without their assistance, spear hunting the large wild animals would be impossible. In the rain forest, with all its dangers, they have to be able to independently take care of their food and survival. When the hunt was successful they were thrown a few unwanted bits.
The hunt is more successful if several groups combine to build a larger netting wall, i.e. 100m (300 ft.).
After a successful hunt, the Basenjis storm ahead with clanging bells into the camp and so announce the success of the enterprise. If the hunt was without results, the bells are silenced by stuffing them with grass.
Some documents never written down until much later, mention Basenjis ending up in the cooking pot if they did not measure up to hunting quality.
Discovery of Basenjis by Africa researchers
In 1868 – 71 African explorer Prof. Dr. Georg Schweinfurth noticed some unusual dogs in the Bahr-el-Ghasal (Central Africa) area. They were used as hunting help by the Azande tribes. Today we know he discovered Basenjis, the breed of dog that was small, had long legs, a ringed tail and a short silky fur.
He wrote : ”The only domestic animals whom the Niam Niam bother to raise are chickens and dogs. The latter belong to a small spitz-like race but with smooth and short fur and with big, always upright ears and a short, thin tail that is always curled up tail similar to piglets. Their color is a light leather yellow with a white collar on their neck. The small, pointed snout is sharply set off from the arched head. Their legs are quite long and straight and prove that this race has nothing to do with the dachshund-like dogs in the ancient Egyptian temple images. These Niam Niam dogs also lack, like all other dog families of the Nile area, the rear claw of the hind legs. One hangs wooden bells on their necks, ostensibly to prevent them from getting lost in the prairie grasses. The animals strongly tend to obesity, just like their owners, who intentionally fatten them because the meat of these dogs is one of their preferred delicacies.”
Fascinated, he decided at the end of one of his studies to take a bitch, that appeared to him to be particularly intelligent, back to Europe. The Basenjis’ urge for freedom came however on the return trip to Europe in Alexandria where she jumped to her death from the second floor of a hotel. He was the first to bring, as a believable witness, the knowledge of the Pygmies in Europe. An interest in Basenji dogs was awakened in Europe.
In 1882 Expedition Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston
“Basenjis The barkless dogs” Miss Veronica Tudor Williams reported: “In 1882 H. H. Johnston spent much time in an expedition from the mouth of the Congo to Bolobo, and gave some interesting notes on the Congo dogs, which he described as prick-eared, with foxy head and smooth fawn colored coats. Of their characters he added, they have one admirable point in that they never bark, whilst the attachment between these pretty creatures and their African masters is deep and fully reciprocated.”
In 1894 finally appeared the first report about Basenjis, still not introduced as breed, in Europe. About 60 years ago the BASENJI was recognized as a breed.
The first dogs to be exhibited appeared at Cruft`s Show (Great Britain) in 1895 and were called African Bush Dogs or Congo Terriers. Unfortunately, all the earliest imports into England were lost to the effects of distemper for which there were no vaccinations or during the early, uncertain period of vaccinations for distemper protection.
At the turn of the century, “Congo terriers” were reported in European newspapers and were displayed in zoos, such as in Berlin and Paris.
The first big breeder of Basenjis was Mrs. Olivia Burn, 1929 who repeatedly acquired dogs from the Pygmies in the Congo basin. After several failures (the dogs died from distemper) she established the breed. Mrs. Olivia Burns begins her adventures in collecting and importing Basenjis. The first dogs she imported did not survive to reproduce. She gave brief description (appeared in Veronica Tudor-Williams books, “Basenjis: The Barkless Dogs”) of some of the trials and tribulations she encountered along the way.
At first the Basenjis were named as “Congo Terriers, Bongo-, Nyam Nyam-and Zande- dogs.” With great difficulty, breeding of Basenjis started in Great Britain.
In 1937 the breed was established in Great Britain by Mrs. Olivia Burn, of the “Blean ” Basenji.
In 1937. she created a sensation at Crufts (the famous dog show in Great Britain) with the exhibition of her first puppies. Judge and breeder were positively besieged by the crowd and bombarded with questions.
The below photo is of Mrs. Burn and her young daughter Jennifer with Bongo and Bokoto of Blean (imports 1936).
“ Bongo of the Blean”
The Basenji Club of Great Britain was formed on 2 September 1939 and is the oldest established club in the world for the breed of Basenjis. The first standard ever was formulated and the Basenji as breed established. In the following years Basenji clubs in Australia, Canada and the United States were established.
The world-famous Basenji expert Miss Veronica Tudor-Williams wrote an article.
In it she wrote: “It would be a tragedy if these canines of such ancient lineage, having maintained their identity over numerous centuries, would now be lost to us forever as a consequence of expanding civilization”.
She discovered the dog “Fula of the Congo” herself on an expedition in the South Sudan on the border with Zaire, and later wrote a book about it.
1946 “Basenjis, The Barkless Dog” Veronica Tudor-Williams wrote a book which is full of useful advice and love for this breed. We are thankful to this special lady who practically saved basenji breed and showed it to the world.
Veronica Tudor-Williams continued to breed during World war II, despite bombardment and rationing. She successfully reared a number of litters. Milk was impossible to get (if you didn’t have a baby), so Veronica had milk powder sent from the USA to help with weaning.
Remarkably, during the war Veronica also exported Basenjis to USA and Canada and these helped establish the breed in both these countries.
In 1947 King Farouk of Egypt (at that time Egypt was still a Monarchy) approached Veronica Tudor Williams with a view to purchasing two Basenjis. After consultation, with Veronica and the King, Farouk’s envoy said the King had now decided to have four puppies. Veronica delivered puppies to the airport where the puppies each had an individual seat for the flight to Egypt. So this dog of the Pharaohs was returning from where it came, to a ‘Pharaoh’ and in Royal Style.
Basenji fanciers in the US and Canada leaped into breeding with enthusiasm from the earliest opportunity. “Bakuma of Blean“was the sire of the first American Kennel Club champion.
Basashi of Blean and Bakuma of Blean 1937 imports from England
Additionally in 1941 several Basenjis were included in a shipment of baby gorillas from Africa. Two of this group, Kindu and Kasenyi became important to the breed development both in America and Europe.
1942 The Basenji Club of America is formed. Learn who the people are who have served as officers and board members over the years.
1943 The American Kennel Club accepts Basenjis and the Basenji Club of America. Between 1943 and 1945 the set goal was for the registration of one hundred basenjis. They established first U.S. Standard
is a 1956 American film adaptation of the novel Good-bye, My Lady (1954) by James H. Street. A story of a boy who learns what it means to be a man by befriending and training a stray Basenji dog. The actors of movie were Walter Brennan and young star Brandon de Wilde.
The famous Basenji from the movie was a female named” My Lady of the Congo “
As it was, My Lady wound up doing most of the scenes. When not filming with then 13-year-old Brandon, the dog spent all her time with him, and an attachment developed between them.
The young star of the film, Brandon de Wilde, kept My Lady as his lifelong companion.
In 1951 A Basenji appears very briefly in the opening scenes of “The African Queen,” a movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
Jon Curby and Michael Work Basenji breeders returned from Zaire in February 1987, enormously enthusiastic—with seven Basenji puppies.
Michael Work with African Basenji puppy
The Bell used during the hunt is made of borasus palm nut, and the clapper is made of monkey bones or sticks. The sound helps frighten the game and locate the dog.
Photo: Michael Work
African Import Expeditions by Jon Curby
Jon Curby shared the stories of his trips to Sudan and the Congo Democratic Republic and showed videos of the puppies and dogs they brought back to improve genetic diversity in the Basenji breed.
In 2004 Sally Wallis went online with her tremendous pedigree database ZANDEE BASENJIS. She had started collecting pedigrees in 1984 and waited until she had about 70,000 pedigrees collected to go online. She has been updating the database until now. We, the Basenji breeders and enthusiasts are very thankful to Sally and to all those people that maintain the database. Here is the link: http://www.pedigrees.zandebasenjis.com/