The Boerboel dates back to the mid-1600s in South Africa. Its name comes from the African word “boer,” which means “farmer.” This term refers to early white Dutch farmers who settled in South Africa and used large, Mastiff-like dogs to guard and protect their farms and families. Many experts say that when Egypt was conquered, Assyrian dogs spread to Africa and to the rest of the world. Two basic types of dogs developed from these Assyrian dogs: hounds and mastiffs. Hounds were used primarily for hunting, while mastiffs were mainly used for guarding and protection. According to most reports, a Dutchman named Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape Horn in South Africa in 1652. He is credited as being the colonial administrator and founder of what now is Capetown. He brought a dog with him to protect his family in the wild, unfamiliar and unforgiving new territory. That popular Dutch dog was called a "Bullenbitjer." These were huge, heavy, Mastiff-type animals with extremely strong guarding and protective instincts. Other Europeans who immigrated to Riebeeck’s new settlement brought dogs of similar and dissimilar types. They undoubtedly mated with native domestic South African dogs.
During the Great Trek that started in the 1800s, Dutch and other European colonists increasingly moved inland to protest tight British rule in southern Africa. Their Boer dogs became scattered across the region. Those that survived the harsh environment were exceptionally hardy, trustworthy, adaptable and loyal. They lived with people who were isolated from the rest of the world and relied on them for guarding, herding and companionship. These dogs were the first line of defense against wild and human predators. They also were used to track and hold down wounded game, until the hunters could retrieve it and use it as a source of food.
Many Boer dogs were highly inbred during this period, which stamped in their toughness, resilience and strength. Starting sometime in the 1930s, Bullmastiffs were brought to South Africa by the De Beers diamond company to guard their mines. These dogs played an important role in the development of the Boerboel. Rhodesian Ridgebacks and their descendants probably also contributed to the Boerboel, although they show no sign of a back ridge today.