How Old Is the Maltese, Really?

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“Little Maltese” The American Kennel Club tells us, “Sitting in the lap of luxury ever since the Bible was being worked on.”

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This is the opinion of my friend Maltese owner (the dog is also my friend), who recently invited the Greeks and Romans as early fans of the breed.

I have these conversations with people who are devoted to one breed or another and I usually nod and say, OK, maybe. True, Aristotle admired the proportions of a type of lap dog described as the Melitian dog. Scholars debate whether this means that the dog came from Malta, or from another island called Melit or Miljet, or perhaps a city in Sicily. It was a long time ago, after all. Aristotle also compared the dog to a marten, a member of the mongoose family, probably because of its size. And yes, the Romans absolutely loved these dogs.


So there’s no doubt that there were little white lap dogs 2,000 years ago. The question is whether the modern Maltese breed is directly descended from domesticated Romans who scratch behind the ears.

I haven’t mentioned this to the dog myself, who would prefer to remain anonymous because the internet can be vicious. And I doubt she will pay much attention to genealogical intrigues. His interests, from what I can see, run more towards demeanor, arrogant and unbearable chipmunks and smelly places.

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It’s not just Maltese fans who are interested in the ancient roots of their breed. There are supporters of Basenjis, Pomeranians, Samoyeds, Salukis, Terriers and others who want to trace the breed back to ancient times. But the Maltese seemed like a good dog to discuss because the historical record is so rich. Apparently the Maltese is an ancient breed. Correct?

I brought this question to several scientists when I have dog DNA questions. Is the Modern Maltese Breed Really Ancient? Scientist, you will be shocked to know, where not? But, like anything involving dogs and science, it’s complicated.

A few points to set the stage. All dogs are descendants of the first dogs, just as all humans can trace their ancestry to the first Homo sapiens. None of us or our dogs have a more ancient ancestry than any other. People seem to want to know whether those ancestors were monastic or noble, William the Conqueror or one of the conquistadors, a dog on the lap that came into the picture, or a dog in the street that got into trouble. had gone.

I’m not seeing it from the outside, by the way. I’ve been there myself, digging as deep as I can into the long and respectable history of my Cairn Terrier and Pomeranian. I’ve also tried to locate my family’s O’Connors and O’Leary’s and Fallons and Goritzes. (I haven’t found a winner yet.) But the thought of valuing genetic purity sometimes sounds intimidating, even if it’s in animals that like to roll in cow cake when they get the chance.

Ellen Ostrander, a dog genomics specialist at the National Institutes of Health, has delved as deeply into breed differences and history as any scientist. He said that the hunger of the ancestry of the old breed is similar to the desire for human ancestors to trace back to the Mayflower. “That’s what we think of ourselves. That’s why we think the same way about our dogs.”

“Pharaoh’s men were the first to contact me and he would ask questions,” he recalled.

“Are our dogs really from the time of the pharaohs?” The breeders asked. Unfortunately not. That breed, Dr. Ostrander said, was “completely reconstructed by mixing and matching existing breeds” after World War II.

Other breeds were established in the Victorian era by selecting an existing group of dogs and classifying them as a breed with a definition that meant only those dogs whose names were in a registry or whose ancestors were in that registry. could be recognized as being in, fit the breed. And 2,000 years ago, she said, “the concept of breed didn’t exist.”

Nor does the DNA show a straight line from ancient to modern Maltese. To understand what dog 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 mostly not genes that have the recipe for floppy ears or folded legs or a certain color coat.

They are not looking for a genetic recipe for a Basset Hound or Beagle, but a way of seeing how closely related one is to the other. Most DNA in humans and dogs has no known function. Only part of the genome makes up the actual gene. And repetitive segments of DNA of unknown purpose, if any, have proven useful in comparing groups and individuals. They change from generation to generation and therefore give scientists more variety to work with than breeds. What the researchers develop is a breed fingerprint, but not a blueprint.

Neither Dr. Ostrander nor Heidi Parker, an NIH colleague and collaborator, gave a definitive answer as to how far a breed could be traced, but they agreed that it was originally a matter of fact. Depends on how long a breed club has been keeping records, not what is in a dog’s DNA. Before that time, breeding was not so regulated.

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

When I asked Gregor Larsen of the University of Oxford, who studies the ancient and modern DNA of dogs and other animals, whether any breeds date back to antiquity, he looked, as best I could tell from his zoom image, as I He was asked if the Earth could really be flat.

“The breeds have closed breeding lines,” he said. “That’s awesome thinking. Once they’re set up, you’re not allowed to bring anything into it. And the concept of breeding and closing the breeding line toward beauty—this whole thing was only in the 19th century. The UK is in the middle of

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

However, dogs have been bred for long, long periods of time to chase, or lap, or herd sheep. One such lineage, calling it the Maltese-adjacent, can be defined as “really small dogs with short legs and they require a lot of attention and people are in love with them,” Dr. Larson said. That lineage was certainly in ancient Rome.

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

There are many others, but I doubt they would qualify for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. And by no means does the modern Maltese or any other modern breed resemble the dogs of antiquity.

“We want to say that our dog is so old in its present form, that it has not been changed,” Dr. Larson said. “Like Maltese has been Maltese for the last 2,000 years. And that’s quite obvious” is not true. Although “not true” was not the expression he used.

“People haven’t been breeding dogs the way we do now for a very long time,” he said. “What our vocabulary is lacking is a word for dogs that mostly look alike, act the same way.”

But, putting words aside, I asked, what about DNA. Does DNA Tell Us How Close a Maltese Dog Is Now to a Maltese? He said that in the past dogs were never bred to be of physical type, that dogs as people migrated, from Rome to Britain and back to Spain and Rome, and that no one kept track of pedigree. Furthermore, when the breeds were established, they were based on the limited number of dogs admitted to the breed at the time. This is known to be an extreme bottleneck in genetics. And all modern dogs are descended from a few, unless there is interbreeding and mixing to change the look of the breed, which can happen.

a maltese The Lion Dog was exhibited at the first Westminster Dog Show in New York in 1877. Back then, Maltese dogs were sometimes crossed with Poodles, and some are now said to show Poodle traits. The stud book, or registry, was started in 1901 with two females and grew to about 50 dogs by the 1950s.

Now you can find out if your Maltese is actually a Maltese by checking its pedigree or, if you want to dig into its genome, by sending some saliva (dog) to a company like Embark, which has over 100 employee secrets. Let’s chase dog DNA, or an academic venture like Darwin’s Dogs, part of the Darwin’s Ark project at the University of Massachusetts. (Ark, no judgment here, cats are involved.) 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 Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine, agreed that modern breeds, with their “closed populations” are about 200 years old.

There is no doubt that small white lap dogs have a long history, he said. “They were very popular in Roman times. Whether or not they may have come from Malta or some other Greek island. But that said, it is an open question as to what kind of genetic continuity there may have been with modern small white lap dogs.

Even in human lineages, where one can trace the human equivalent of a lineage back 1,000 years ago, the idea of ​​genetic continuity is divorced from the reality of genes.

With age, each time a male and female produce offspring, they carry half the DNA from each parent. The genetic deck is shuffled and half the cards are discarded. This change happens over and over again. In each generation, it appears that the two decks of 52 cards are swapped to come up with a new deck that still numbers 52.

“When you go back 10 generations,” said Dr. Boyko, most of those ancestors, 10 generations ago, didn’t actually contribute any DNA to you. It was thrown out. It is the same with the Maltese. Even if a document was a straight line, which is not, there would be no specific genetic variation of the ancestors of the descendants.

Ultimately, of course, explained Elinor Carlson, a genomics researcher at the Massachusetts Medical School who runs Darwin’s Ark, we can’t reach complete clarity on dog breeds because “breed” is used differently by different people. Used for different things.

Speaking of dogs in art, she said: “It could either be that the dog in the painting only resembles the Maltese and is completely unrelated to the Maltese around today. It could be that that dog actually has It is the same genetic variant that makes a Maltese short or causes a Maltese to be white.” But, she said, “I don’t know whether it makes them the same race or not. It’s kind of a cultural concept.”

“So does this mean that your Maltese is ancient because there was an ancient Maltese that had the same mutation? I mean, it depends on your point of view,” Dr. Carlson said.

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