In the world of dogs, there is an obsession with claiming that one’s favored breed is of ancient ancestry.
It’s an obsession that gets somewhat silly whenever one tries to look at the claims using the historical record or genetic evidence.
For example, it is well-known that the drop-eared sighthounds that are found from North Africa through the Middle East to India and China are representative of a fairly old type.
However, they are not necessarily old breeds. That’s because these dogs never existed as a “breed” in the first place until Westerners got their hands on them, and the only reason why these breeds appear to be so ancient is because they remained outside Western dog population, which were notoriously mixed until the Victorians began turning them into breeds.
But you’ll often see claims that someone is preserving salukis or Afghan hounds by keeping them pure or keeping out “foreign’ colors.
They think they are preserving animals from an ancient bloodline that some less scientific people have claimed that Afghan hounds were the dogs that Noah put on his ark. The implication is that if one is breeding Afghan hounds, then you must be breeding the original “dog kind.”
But even those who don’t follow myths in the bible still think they are preserving an ancient breed, and they must follow the traditions, which means they think that these breeds have been pure for thousands of years.
They take the fact that this type of dog is really old and then superimpose upon it the Victorian “breed” concept, and in this bizarre syncretism, they create a fiction that by keeping these breeds pure and free of foreign of foreign color, they are preserving the strains.
It’s a bizarre fiction, but at least one can claim that this type of sighthound is pretty old.
But it’s not just with these breeds.
Take the Irish water spaniel. As far as I can tell, the dog we call the Irish water spaniel probably didn’t exist in its current form until the 1840′s, when a shooting sportsman from Dublin named Justin McCarthy began to select from the local water spaniel population. I think it’s very likely that the local strain of water spaniel had a lot the old rough water dog’s ancestry. The rough water dog was sort of the English variant of the French barbet and the German poodle, though it was a stockier dog, not unlike a Labradoodle.
Water spaniels certainly are an older type. They appear right through the late Medieval and Early Modern period in the British Isles, but to claim that the Irish water spaniel is the same thing as this dogs is a real stretch.
But that’s not where Irish water spaniel fanciers leave it. No, they go even further back. Using archaeological evidence of several skulls found in the 7 and 8th centuries in Ireland and during the late Stone Age and early Bronze Age in Central Europe, Irish water spaniel people have claimed that the old dog skulls represent Irish water spaniels!
Never mind that dog skull shape is one of the most variable features that the species possesses. One can see historical evidence of dog breeds developing entirely different skull through selective breeding. Almost anyone who has any knowledge of dogs knows that we have monkeyed with their skull shapes quite a bit. For example, the dogs Americans call Jack Rusell terriers and the AKC recognizes as Parson Russell terriers are actually the older form of fox terrier, which had mesocephalic skull. The wire and smooth fox terriers one sees in the ring have elongated muzzles, but their ancestors all looked like the dogs we call Jack Russells.
For this reason. claims about skull shape and ancestry in domestic dogs really don’t impress me much.
But that doesn’t stop people from making the claim.
Even if it is absurd.
But there is actually a reason for the claims of ancient origin. This reason has two basic features:
One is that humans will follow tradition. There must be something innate in human nature that causes us to follow tradition. It certainly would have an evolutionary advantage for younger members of a family group to follow the guidance of their elders.
And if your elders know how to find food or make some useful tool, that’s a very advantageous behavioral adaptation.
But if your elders belief absolute nonsense, it’s not such a good adaptation.
Which is where the dog fancy gets mixed in.
People involved in dogs are intensely political, and there is a lot of jockeying for power within each breed club.
One way to get power in dog clubs is to have some claim that the way you’re doing things has something to do with the “original intent” of the breed. If you can bring up some historical facts or something like facts to back your case, people will listen to you. And if you question it, why should we listen to you?
So if you can claim that your dog is ancient and you’re doing something to preserve the it in its original form, you will become a sort of hero.
Most of these breed origin stories don’t hold up under careful scrutiny.
That’s because they really aren’t meant to be histories.
They are meant to be creation myths that orient the faithful into thinking a certain way and accepting certain strictures and values.
This is the real reason why so many people are so caught up on the story that their chosen breed is of ancient origin.
It’s not about the facts. It’s about the society surrounding that breed in modern times.