Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mary Elizabeth Thurston "The Lost History of the Canine Race"

“The Lost History of the Canine Race: Our 15,000-Year Love Affair with Dogs” is a must-read for every dog lover. But anyone interested in knowing more about our complex historical relation with the creature that, for good and bad, has been our closest companion will find a lot of information in this book.

This large volume is put together like the reference book it deserves to be. It is filled with information and illustrated throughout with black and white photographs and also has a section of colour reproductions. It’s the kind of book you keep going back to, in order to check a fact, re-read a passage, or just look at the pictures.

Mary Elizabeth Thurston starts at the very beginning taking a look at currently held theories on the domestication of the wolf (Asia, is now the believed spot for the first domestication, and all dogs are supposedly descended from only a few domesticated individuals). She then takes a look at archaeological finds to see what they reveal (or not) about mankind’s growing proximity with the dog. Interestingly enough, European cave painting so lavish in portraying prey animals hardly ever features dogs, who were by then almost certainly a feature of human groups.

The author then provides fascinating and learned essays on the place of dogs in Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations, drawing from archaeological finds, art, texts and religion. She also explains that, only recently, has zooarchaeology been gaining acceptance in museums and universities. For most of the twentieth century archaeological finds pertaining to animals were regularly discarded by archaeologists themselves as well as museums – dog and cat remains along with objects related to their keeping were not seen as important. Animal mummies (and animal cemeteries) for instance, were so numerous in Egypt that they were routinely destroyed or sold as curios. Unimaginable amounts of information were lost in this way and by the discarding of animal bones found in Neolithic and Palaeolithic digs.

Following chapters analyse dog culture in Medieval and Renaissance epochs. Some very interesting sub-chapters deal with the use of dogs as weapons of terror by the Spanish Conquistadores in their colonies, the belief in supernatural dogs (the Inquisition popularizing the relationship between black dogs and the Devil) but also favoured royal pets in European courts.

The object of royal indulgence, dogs became the status symbol for anyone who could afford them. Ironically, as populations became increasingly urban, the dog, so often maligned as the carrier of disease and bad spirits, endured only as a fearless, tireless and uncomplaining guardian of flocks, property and hunting companion, slowly turned into the loved pet we know today.

It was in this context that “the fancy” was born. Breeders, shows and clubs were mostly the product of the XIX century and it is surely not a coincidence that DNA testing has proved that the majority of dog breeds were “born” around this time by extensive artificial selection at the hands of humans. In this period breeders began to enhance certain physical traits and not always with a goal other than esthetical preference and the belief that a “purebred” dog (in other words a dog created by human intervention) is superior to a “random-bred” dog (a mutt, by other words).

It is fascinating to think that our “modern” relationship with dogs is, in fact, so recent! Of course, as soon as dogs became pets, “rare” and “exotic” breeds become the holy grail of cosmopolitan trendsetters. One of the first dog “fevers” was caused by the tiny Pekingese. Probably descended from the Roman Era Maltese, only the royal Chinese family was allowed to own and breed them. And breed they did, creating (mostly in the late XIX century) the short-legged, pug-nosed, hairball we know today (western breeders would further “improve” the breed within an inch of its life). When British and French troops stormed the Summer Palace in 1860 during the Opium Wars, they came upon these little “freaks”, who could have easily slipped into oblivion, where it not the fact that a British ship captain offered one to Queen Victoria. The Peke had been made. In fact, modern Pekes are descended from these Chinese refugees (just as modern Shar-Pei persecuted by the Communist regime were also “saved” by westerners), a couple of males and a hand-full of females.

The first societies for the protection of animals, the use of dogs in wars, the place of the dog in Native American culture, the rise of modern dog breeds, dog laws, commercial dog food and accessories and dog cemeteries are all tackled in this volume. It overflows information, all of it fascinating for dog people and at 300 pages it made wish it was double the size. An absolute treat.

No comments: