Part 1. Exploring the History of the American Pit Bull Terrier

miacis oldest pit bull ancestor

Exploring the History of the American Pit Bull Terrier

Americans love their pets; there’s little doubt about that. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), there are an estimated 70 to 80 million dogs in American homes. Approximately 37 to 47% of all American households have at least one dog. With pets such a prevalent part of American society, there are a number of views that have developed around various breeds.

Chihuahuas, pugs, and miniature pinschers have are viewed as great pets for those living in apartments, with their small stature and relatively docile behavior offering the perfect fit. Golden retrievers are viewed as the quintessential family dog. For all the beliefs held by Americans, no dog’s history, behavior, and qualities are more misunderstood than the American Pit Bull Terrier. Referred to fondly as pit bulls and the bully by those who adore these dogs, the corrupt view of these beloved animals held by many other Americans needs correction.

The key to understanding any dog in the modern world is to delve deep into the history of the breed. For it is the history of any breed that has led to the development of the dogs you see today. For this section, we’re going to focus strictly on the history of the American Pit Bull Terrier.

Dogs in the Prehistoric World

Miacis oldest ancestor of pit bulls

The American Pit Bull Terrier, and every other dog breed on planet Earth, can trace its roots back to the Miacis (Pictured left). This creature inhabited the prehistoric world starting around 60 million years ago. A small mammal compared to many of today’s most popular dog breeds, the Miacis roamed the environments of what is today known as Asia. This creature formed the foundation for a genus upon which the gray wolf would emerge as early history’s dominant canine.


Early Diversion in the Bloodline

Although all dog breeds can trace their roots back to the Miacis, the dominant bloodline of modern dogs can be traced more accurately back to the Cynodictis. This latter creature evolved from the Miacis around 30 to 40 million years ago, and took on the first true characteristics that modern humans are accustomed to seeing in dogs. The Cynodictis was a medium-size mammal that was longer than it was tall, and was the first to feature a distinctive long tail and brushy coat.

From this bloodline, the first modern dogs would eventually evolve. The Cynodictis gave rise to its own split branch of species over the course of thousands of years, with one inhabiting Africa and the other dominant in Europe and Asia. It was the latter branch from which the Tomarctus would evolve, which is the animal directly related to wolves, dogs, and foxes.


Domestication of Wolves

The matter of canine domestication is still hotly debated by scholars and canine specialists alike. One theory suggests that gray wolves were first domesticated in China roughly 16,300 years ago in an effort to guard livestock. Another popular theory credits early European inhabitants with domesticating wolves as early as 32,100 years ago. Although the specific origin of canine domestication is up for debate, fossil records have proven that five distinct types of dogs existed by the start of the Bronze Age in 4500 BCE.

These included:

  • Wolf-type dogs
  • Sight hounds
  • Pointing dogs
  • Herding dogs
  • Mastiffs

For the purposes of this historical look at the American Pit Bull Terrier, it is that final grouping of mastiffs that is the most relevant. The pit bull split as a separate breed from the mastiff over the course of thousands of years of domestication and breeding in mainland Europe, and the differences between domestication efforts in Europe and elsewhere in the world at that time offers a fascinating look into the pit bull as we know it today.


Early Domestication Efforts

Early human civilizations viewed dogs in different lights and bred them in different ways, much as modern human societies do today. For example, nobleman in the Middle East bred dogs that were fleet-footed and had higher than average visual capabilities. In Europe, on the other hand, the mastiff breed rose to popularity because people were looking for dogs to protect homes and travelers on the road.

The development of the American Pit Bull Terrier is not a tale of successive breeding efforts that refined the traits of one specific dog from history, but rather, one that speaks to an evolution and combination of various breeds found on the European continent. In fact, when you look closely at the temperament, behavior, and physical characteristic of today’s pit bull, there are examples of each of its ancestors within its physical and emotional being.


The Pit Bull’s First Ancestor

mollosoid mastiff

Among the biggest contributors to the future rise of the pit bull was the molossoid dogs that were kept by Celtic tribes on the British Isles. In 50 AD the Roman Empire was looking to expand its borders across the English Channel to the island of Britannia, as it was then known to Roman society. When the forces of Emperor Claudius met British Chief Caractacus on the field of battle during the Roman invasion, the Roman soldiers were stunned by the ferocity and loyalty of the molossoid dogs fighting alongside the Celtic warriors.

After achieving their objective of defeating Chief Caractacus, Claudius and his men began exporting the fierce fighting dogs back to the heart of the Roman Empire. Here, the dogs were used in the Colosseum as fearsome fighting dogs, and eventually even bred with Roman dog breeds. These early crossbreeds led to the rise of the mastiff breed, which would later spread from the Roman Empire throughout Spain, France, and the rest of mainland Europe, along with bulldog-like breeds.