The Basenji has had one of the longest recorded histories of any currently recognizable dog breed, remaining almost virtually identical to the earliest depictions of the breed. Although there have been many claims that the Basenji is not a true dog but rather a mixture of a true dog, which descended from wolves, with other dog relative such as a jackal or other type of wild hybrid, modern forms of DNA testing have positively established the Basenji as a true dog, not a hybrid cross.
The first actual depictions of a dog that is virtually identical to the modern Basenji can be found on the tomb walls of ancient Egyptian burial locations. This means that the breed itself was established as a unique, definable breed as long ago as five thousand years. The dogs in the engravings are found on stelae, which are a carved wood or stone tablet used in a commemorative or burial ceremonial decoration. In Egyptian tombs the stelae show very easily identified smaller size, curly tailed coursing type hounds with very wide, triangular ears and highly athletic body. Often the Basenji in these ancient depictions were seen at the feet of the very powerful Egyptian pharaohs, but there is no indication that they were exclusively a dog of royalty.
During ancient times the Basenji would have been awarded a place of high honor in a household, literally being one of the family. The Egyptians have a long history of domesticating dogs, cats and other animals and treating them with both respect and honor as in keeping with the various deities and gods that were worshiped in the civilization. The Basenji would have also worked as a hunting dog, used as a coursing hound, sighting prey and chasing smaller game animals over the vast areas of wild land around the early cities and even in rural areas.
The intelligence of the Basenji as well as its clean mannerisms were very much respected within the Egyptian culture and dogs were not required to be as typically obedient as dogs today. The independent nature of the Basenji also made them a very adaptable dog to a wide range of settings from the excitement of the hunt to being ideal companion dogs while indoors.
However the Basenji was not just found as a pampered dog of the Egyptians. The earliest origins of the breed have been traced back to the Congo area of Africa. They were and are still also very popular in Zaire; however it was in the Congo in 1895 that the breed first caught the attention of early European explorers. These dogs were skilled hunters, chasing game back towards the village hunters and into nets, where the game animals were swiftly killed by the hunters. Since Basenji's hunted and chased silently, crude bells were often attached to the dog's collars, providing a source of sound to further drive the prey ahead of the dogs. Their smaller size, high rate of speed and incredible intelligence and problem solving abilities were very much prized by the natives. The dogs were called Basenji, which translated means roughly "bush thing" or wild dog, but also in other languages means dog of the village or even more uniquely "jumping up and down". The later term describes the breed's ability to bound straight up into the air in an attempt to better spot game even in dense vegetation and over rough terrain.
The first attempts to bring Basenji dogs back to Europe were disastrous for the dogs. One of the earliest attempts to bring the dogs back from the Africa, more specifically the Sudan, resulted in the dogs having a serious reaction from the distemper shots required for dogs entering into England. The complete pack of 6 Basenjis died from the shots in 1923 and it wasn't until 1930 that a small number of Basenjis were successfully relocated to the United Kingdom.
The first Basenjis to come to the United States arrived in 1941. Surprisingly they were not from the UK stock but rather imported directly from the Congo by wild animal trader Henry Trefflich. He imported a breeding pair named Kindu and Kasenyi, which are considered to be two of the six foundation dogs for most of the purebred Basenjis in the United States.
In 1943 the American Kennel Club recognized the breed and the movie "Good-bye My Lady" highlighted the breed in 1956. This movie really brought the unique vocalizations of the breed to the public attention and sparked an interest in the Basenji that continues until today. Up until 1987 there were no imports of Basenjis from Africa, and American breeders became concerned with a potential risk of an ever shrinking gene pool within purebred lines. Since all Basenjis can be traced back to the six original imports, new bloodlines were needed to ensure a healthy, viable breed in the future. The stud books were opened again and many different African imported Basenjis have been added to infuse genetic material into the breed lines and prevent any possible genetic complications in the future.
As of the most recent 2008 American Kennel Club registration statistics the Basenji is the 83rd most popular breed out of a recognized 156 breeds. This number does not include non-registered dogs or hybrid dogs, so the actual number of Basenjis is likely to be much higher. The dogs are often used in coursing events and as companion pets with few used as actual hunting dogs in the United States. The Basenji is also a great companion dog for other animals and can get along very well with cats and smaller house pets provided it is well socialized and raised with other animals. Some may have a higher prey drive and may require more supervision before being left alone with other smaller animals.
In Africa, specifically the Congo and surrounding areas, the Basenji is still used in their traditional roles as a hunting dog and companion. The African Basenji is very similar in appearance, temperament and size to the American or European Basenji which is a real tribute to breeders that have attempted to keep the breed in its original form rather than to attempt to change the appearance.