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Dog-headed Indians November 26, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

What do Marco Polo, Augustine, Paul the Deacon, Vincent of Beauvais and the Buddhist missionary, Hui-Sheng all have in common? Well, to keep things short – Beachcombing is on bedtime duty tonight for his insomniac daughter – they all described and (with the exception of Augustine) believed in tribes of dog-headed human beings in lands distant from their own. And how was it that so many intelligent authors and travellers came to convince themselves of the existence of these peculiar creatures: a legend that can be traced from the fifth century B.C. up to early modern times – artists were still painting dog heads onto maps of Ethiopia in the sixteenth century?

Well, Beachcombing must come clean. He has not the slightest idea. He once spent an afternoon looking through a medical textbook to see if any tropical illness could account for dog-like faces – nothing doing. He has also wondered if the Egyptian god Anubis glimpsed in statue form by foreigners might not have set off the mania among dog-head spotters: and he still has, in truth, his suspicions there.  Any opinions please send to drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

However, he came across, last week, a plausible suggestion for our oldest surviving dog-head reference and, with some excitement, he offers both the original passage and the explanation here.

The author is an old friend, Ctesias of Cnidus, a Greek geographer and doctor who worked out of Persia. Beachcombing has recently looked at another tall tale from Ctesias – the napalm snake – and he suggested there that Ctesias was an unreliable narrator for ancient India, though one who may have occasionally grasped and then warped truths and half truths given to him by Persian intermediaries.  In any case Ctesias wrote the following:

[37] ‘On these mountains [in India] there live men with the head of a dog, whose clothing is the skin of wild beasts. They speak no language, but bark like dogs, and in this manner make themselves understood by each other. Their teeth are larger than those of dogs, their nails like those of these animals, but longer and rounder. They inhabit the mountains as far as the river Indus. Their complexion is swarthy. They are extremely just, like the rest of the Indians with whom they associate. They understand the Indian language, but are unable to converse, only barking or making signs with their hands and fingers by way of reply, like the deaf and dumb. They are called by the Indians Calystrii, in Greek Cynocephali [dog heads]. They live on raw meat. They number about 120,000.

One possibility is that the Indian people being described here by Ctesias were the Kukura. Kukura means ‘dog’ and the dog was presumably a tribal totem in the same way that some African, American and European peoples adopted, in ancient times, animal and bird symbols: other Indian clans and tribes included the Peacocks, the Monkeys, the Jackals, the Black Ants etc etc.

The meaning of the word would, in this scenario, have then travelled with the noun into a Persian account and from there misunderstandings multiplied.

Admittedly getting from Kukura to Calystrii takes a lot of errors in transmission, but nothing extraordinary by the sorry standards of ancient scribes. And this chain of Chinese Whispers may have been helped along by confusion with another Indian people, the Kauravas and a tendency for ‘r’ and ‘l’ to be confused in Sanskrit writing.

Is it possible that a chain of spelling mistakes led to one of the most popular of all Euro-Asian legends – the doghead? Beachcombing finds the explanation attractive in this case though can’t see such a misunderstanding accounting for all doghead stories – and there are many…  Another day Beachcombing hopes to come to the question of the dog-headed saint, Christopher, where Anubis proved that his bark was worse than his bite.


1 Dec, 2010: J.Thirks wrote into Beach hoping to answer the mystery of the dog-head: ‘look at the head on a baboon or similar ape/monkey. Just maybe [a dog head] to an earlier european traveller?’ Beachcombing can’t believe that he never thought of this and is positively positive that in one of those great Victorian tomes someone will already have done so. Beachcombing normally only puts up emails that add or subtract from knowledge. However, he cannot miss out here on Professor Steve Muhlberger’s comment: ‘They just wanted there to be  dog-headed people somewhere’! Of course, there is still then the question of why dogs rather than cat heads or cow heads.  Thanks to J.T. and Prof Muhlberger!!

31 May 2011: ‘After giving it some thought, perhaps the best explanation of the various accounts of dog-faced people you have run across may be the phenomenon of excessive hairiness which covers the face and most of the remaining body. Scientists say it is due to a defective gene, but perhaps it is really a recessive gene that has become much more rare over the millennia, resulting in whole tribes of these people becoming extinct. There may have been other genes connected with the hairiness gene which contributed further to the impression of a dog face. It is interesting the number of atavistic genes humans possess; another one would be the now rare tail gene that appears only occasionally, resulting in what seems to be a small tail at birth.’