The history of dogs isn’t like pizza — flat and formulaic, neatly divided, and simple to pull apart. Nope, canine evolution is a lot more like lasagna: densely layered, and more than a little messy.
Consider, for example, the Komondor. This Hungarian livestock dog is known for its distinctive white coat, which falls in heavy cords that casual observers often compare to a mop. But under those tassel-like masses is a dog whose story spans the vastness of European history, tracing all the way back to the Eurasian steppes that connect those two continents.
This ancient ancestry is encoded in the breed’s very name. Komondor – or quman-dur – literally means “dog of the Cumans,” a name recorded in writing as early as the mid-1500s.
Dog of the Cumans
If you have never heard of the Cumans, you are of course forgiven. These wide-ranging pagans were absorbed into Hungarian culture centuries ago, with the last native Cuman speaker dying in the late 1700s. But reverberations of their culture remain in an ancestral sheepdog that has been kept remarkably undiluted across multiple centuries and thousands of miles.
The Cumans were believed to have originated far from Hungary, in an area of China east of the Yellow River. Despite their Asian origins, they were said to have blond hair and blue eyes, and they spoke an early Turkic language.
Being nomadic pastoralists whose animal herds provided most of their sustenance, the Cumans did not farm, living instead in tents and consuming mostly meat, cheese, and milk. Even in early medieval times, they were noted as expert livestock breeders: Cream-colored Cuman horses were particularly prized, a valuable commodity that could be traded. So renowned was their culture’s expertise in all aspects of livestock that some Cumans were captured by other groups in order to train horses or manage flocks.
Given their highly mobile lifestyle and the importance of keeping their animals safe, the Cumans had an obvious need for a sturdy, loyal, and fearless livestock guardian like the Komondor. And they had the breeding skills to develop such a dog, whose impressively corded coat repelled the elements and blended seamlessly into the bleating herds, keeping them calm while retaining the element of surprise with marauding wolves and bears.
Sacred & Spiritual
Like other formidable breeds that evolved among nomadic peoples in the spare, forbidding swaths of Asia that the Cumans once called home, from Tibetan Mastiffs to Central Asian Sheepdogs, the Komondor had the physical and mental qualities necessary for survival on the harsh steppes, including strong bone to stand up against fearsome predators and an equally uncompromising temperament.
In addition to the Komondor’s key role in protecting Cuman livestock – or perhaps because of it – the dogs were considered sacred. Evidence of dog sacrifices has been found at Cuman burial sites, and important oaths were often sworn over a dog that had been cut in two by a sword.
While the end result for the dogs in both cases was less than optimal, their use in such contexts attests to their spiritual status, along with that of their wild brother and traditional adversary, the wolf. One Cuman chieftain was said to have howled along with wolves the evening before a battle to determine if his army would prevail.
A Change in Customs
Starting in the late 10th century, the Cumans began to be pushed westward toward Europe by the conquering Mongols, arriving at the Hungarian border a couple of centuries later.
They were met with a mixed reception: In 1239 the Cumans were granted asylum in Hungary, with the Hungarian king’s hopes that their arrow-shooting horsemen could help repel the invading Mongols. But only a handful of years later, the Cuman royal family was massacred because of the court’s mistaken assumption that they were Mongolian spies, and most of the remaining Cumans soon departed. In 1245, after the Mongol armies swept through, the welcome mat was again rolled out. And this time the Cumans stayed.
The Cumans were highly regarded for their military skills honed over centuries of raiding, and their detailed metal face masks, right down to the hand-hammered mustaches and eyebrows, must have struck fear in the heart of any foe. For a time after their arrival in Hungary they served as mercenaries in the king’s army, noted for their skill as mounted archers, and fighting for him as far afield as Austria and Moravia, now the Czech Republic.
The once-nomadic Cumans settled on the Great Hungarian Plain, which was already a bustling agricultural region. At first, they retained some of their pagan customs, consuming horse flesh and living in yurts or “felted houses,” as one contemporary account described them – a neat parallel to the coats of their Komondor dogs.
The Lasting Komondor
As they settled into their new Hungarian homeland, the Cumans began to assimilate, converting to Christianity and abandoning their Eastern-style caftans, conical hats, and telltale hairstyle that comprised a shaved head above several braids that fell onto the men’s backs.
But even as Cuman culture dissolved into the very different Hungarian society around it, what remained unchanged were their dogs.
So much so that, redundantly, Hungary has two white-coated livestock guardian breeds that have survived side by side for centuries. And, somewhat remarkably, they rarely intermingled. One is the more traditionally coated Kuvacz, associated with the Magyar clans that arrived in the region much earlier from the Ural Mountains of Russia. And the other is, of course, the Komondor.
Even today, with an ever-growing array of purebreds being recognized by the American Kennel Club, the Komondor stops the uninitiated in their tracks with its strikingly flocked coat, which can take more than two days to dry after a bath. There is indeed a muscular, dignified dog under that armor of matted locks – along with something a bit less tangible.
As their ancestors did before them, the Cumins left stone statues, called balbals, to mark burial grounds and crossroads along large swaths of the Eurasian plain. Excavated by archeologists, these anthropomorphic sentinels now reside in museums around the world, wordless witnesses to a far-flung culture that in its final throes helped create the modern Balkans. And in Hungary’s beloved Komondor, we have their canine corollary – a living, breathing whisper of a fierce people transplanted to Europe from Asia’s wind-whipped steppes.