How old is the Maltese dog breed?

“The little Maltese,” the American Kennel Club tells us, “has been sitting in luxury since the Bible is a work in progress.”

This is also the opinion of my friend the Maltese owner (the dog is also my friend), who recently invoked the Greeks and Romans as the first admirers of the breed.

I have these conversations on occasion with people who are dedicated to one race or another and I usually nod my head and say, well, maybe, sort of. Certainly, Aristotle praised the proportions of a kind of lapdog described as a Melitean dog. Scholars wonder if this meant the dog came from Malta, or another island called Melite or Miljet, or possibly a town in Sicily. It was a long time ago, after all. Aristotle also compared the dog to a marten, a member of the weasel family, possibly because of its size. And yes, the Romans loved these dogs.

So there is little doubt that there were small white dogs 2,000 years ago. The question is whether the modern Maltese breed is directly descended from the pets the Romans scratched behind their ears.

I didn’t tell the dog himself, who would prefer to remain anonymous because the internet can be vicious. And I doubt she would pay much attention to genealogical intrigue. His interests, from what I can see, are more towards candy bars, arrogant and intolerable chipmunks, and smelly places to roll around.

Maltese fanciers aren’t the only ones interested in the ancient roots of their breed. Basenjis, Pomeranians, Samoyeds, Salukis, terriers and others have proponents who want to trace the breeds back to antiquity. But the Maltese seemed like a good dog to talk to because the historical record is so rich. Obviously, the Maltese is an ancient breed. To the right?

I have posed this question to several of the scientists I turn to when I have questions about a dog’s DNA. Is the modern Maltese breed, in fact, ancient? The scientists, you’ll be shocked to learn, said no. But, like everything about dogs and science, it’s complicated.

A few points to set the scene. All dogs are descended from early dogs, just as all humans can trace their ancestry back to early Homo sapiens. None of us, nor our dogs, have an older ancestry than the others. What people seem to want to know is whether those ancestors were mutts or nobles, William the Conqueror or one of the vanquished, a dog on the lap that ended up in a portrait, or a dog in the street that got in trouble.

I’m not looking at this from the outside, by the way. I’ve been there myself, digging as deep as possible into the long and honorable history of my Cairn Terriers and Pomeranians. I also tried to trace the O’Connors and O’Learys and the Fallons and Goritz of my family. (I haven’t found any conquerors yet.) But the idea of ​​valuing genetic purity sometimes seems scary, even if it’s in animals that like to roll in cow pies when they get the chance. .

Elaine Ostrander, a canine genomics specialist at the National Institutes of Health, has delved into breed differences and history like any scientist. She said the hunger for ancient race ancestry is similar to the desire to trace back to the Mayflower for human ancestry. “We think so of ourselves. So we think that way about our dogs.

“The Pharaoh’s dogs were the first to approach me and ask this question,” she recalls.

“Do our dogs really date from the time of the Pharaoh?” asked the breeders. Unfortunately no. This breed, Dr. Ostrander said, was “totally recreated by mixing and matching existing breeds” after World War II.

Other breeds were established by choosing a group of dogs existing in the Victorian era and classifying them as a breed with a definition which meant that only dogs whose names appeared in a register or whose ancestors could be identified as being in this register, corresponded to the race. And 2,000 years ago, she says, “the concept of race didn’t exist.”

DNA also does not show a direct line between Old Maltese and Modern Maltese. To understand what canine DNA research is all about, it’s worth taking a step back. The genetic markers that Dr. Ostrander and other researchers use in genome comparisons to identify breeds are generally not the genes that contain the recipe for droopy ears or bent paws or a certain coat color.

They’re not looking for a genetic recipe for a Basset Hound or a Beagle, but a way to see how closely related one is to the other. Most DNA in humans and dogs has no known function. Only part of a genome constitutes the actual genes. And repetitive DNA sequences of unknown purpose, if any, have been shown to be useful for comparing groups and individuals. They change more from generation to generation and therefore provide more variation for scientists to compare breeds. What the researchers are developing is a race fingerprint, not a blueprint.

Neither Dr. Ostrander nor Heidi Parker, an NIH colleague and collaborator, gave a firm answer on when a breed could be traced, but they agreed that it basically depends on how long a breed club kept records, not of what is in a dog’s DNA. Prior to this time, animal husbandry was not so regulated.

The genomes of the Maltese, Havanese, Bichon and Bolognese (the dog not the sauce) are all linked, Dr Parker said. The races may have split from a common ancestor a few hundred years ago and that common ancestor may no longer exist, or it may have been closer to one of the races than the others. But there is no DNA line to trace back to the time of Aristotle.

When I asked Greger Larson of Oxford University, who studies ancient and modern DNA in dogs and other animals, if any breeds date back to antiquity, he looked, as best I could I could tell from his Zoom image, as if I had asked him if the Earth could really be flat.

“Breeds have closed breeding lines,” he said. “That’s the idea. Once they’re established, you’re not allowed to bring anything to them. And this concept of breeding towards aesthetics and closing the breeding line – everything this is only the mid-19th century in the UK”

“I don’t care if you’re talking about a pug or a New Guinea singing dog or a basenji,” he said. Races, by definition, are recent.

There have, however, been lines of dogs bred for hunting, or lapping, or herding sheep, for a long, long time. One such line, called the adjacent Maltese, could be defined as “very small dogs with short legs and they need a lot of attention and people are in love with them,” Dr. Larson said. This line certainly existed in ancient Rome.

My friend the Maltese supporter sent me pictures of old paintings. Mary Queen of Scots has some sort of little dog in a portrait from around 1580, but I have to say it looks more like the ghost of a Papillon than a living Maltese. Queen Elizabeth also has a small dog in a portrait from the same era, which more or less looks like a small white dog.

There are many more, but I doubt they qualify for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. And none of this means that the modern Maltese or any other modern breed is the same as the dogs of antiquity.

“We want to say that our dog is very old in his current form, that he hasn’t changed,” Dr. Larson said. “Like Maltese has been Maltese for 2000 years. And that’s clearly not true. Although ‘not true’ wasn’t the phrase he used.

“People don’t breed dogs like we have for a very long time,” he said. “What we’re missing in our vocabulary is a word for dogs that mostly look alike, doing the same kind of work.”

But, putting words aside, I asked, what about DNA. Does DNA tell us how close a dog that looks like a Maltese is now to a Maltese? He said the breeding of dogs in the past was never done according to physical type, that dogs moved as people moved, from Rome to Britain, and back to Spain. and Rome, and no one kept track of pedigrees. Also, when the breeds were established, they were based on a limited number of dogs allowed into the breed at that time. This is what is called in genetics an extreme bottleneck. And all modern dogs are descended from just a few, unless there are crosses and mixtures to change the look of the breed, which can happen.

Now you can tell if your Maltese is really a Maltese by checking its pedigree or, if you want to dig into its genome, by sending saliva (the dog’s) to a company like Embark, with over 100 employees looking for the secrets. dog DNA, or an academic venture like Darwin’s Dogs, which is part of the Darwin’s Ark project at the University of Massachusetts. (The Ark, no judgment here, includes cats.) The scientists involved in this work are also drawn into the question of the breed’s antiquity by curious dog owners and journalists.

Adam Boyko, co-founder of Embark and a geneticist at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine, agreed that modern breeds, with their “closed populations,” are around 200 years old.

He said there is no doubt that little white dogs have a long history. “They were very popular in Roman times. They may or may not come from Malta or another Greek island. But he said it’s an open question about what kind of genetic continuity there may be with modern small white dogs.

Even in human genealogy, where the human equivalent of a pedigree can be traced back 1,000 years, the idea of ​​genetic continuity is divorced from the reality of genes.

Over the ages, each time a male and female produce offspring, they take half of each parent’s DNA. The genetic deck is shuffled and half the cards are discarded. This shuffling happens over and over again. With each generation, it’s as if two decks of 52 cards were shuffled to form a new deck that always has 52.

“When you go back 10 generations,” Dr. Boyko said, most of those ancestors, 10 generations back, actually didn’t bring you DNA. He was turned upside down. It’s the same with a Maltese. Even if there was a documented direct lineage, which there is not, the descendants would not have much specific genetic variation from the ancestors.

Ultimately, of course, explained Elinor Karlsson, a genomics researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who directs Darwin’s Ark, we can’t achieve complete clarity about dog breeds because the ” race” is used to mean different things by different people.

Speaking of dogs in art, she said: ‘It could either be that the dog in the painting just looks like a Maltese and has no connection to the Maltese today. It could be that this dog has the exact same genetic variant that makes a Maltese small or a Maltese white. But, she added, “I don’t know if that makes them the same breed or not. It’s kind of a cultural concept.

“So does that mean your Maltese is ancient because there was an ancient Maltese who had the same mutation?” I mean, it kind of depends on your perspective,” Dr. Karlsson said.