“The little Maltese,” the American Kennel Club tells us, “has been sitting in luxury since the Bible was a work in progress.”
This is also the opinion of my friend the Maltese owner (the dog is also my friend), who recently cited the Greeks and Romans as the breed’s first admirers.
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. True, Aristotle praised the proportions of a kind of companion dog described as a Melitan dog. Researchers wonder if that meant the dog was from Malta, or another island called Melite or Miljet, or perhaps 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, perhaps because of its size. And yes, the Romans absolutely adored these dogs.
So there is no doubt that there were little white dogs 2,000 years ago. The question is whether the modern Maltese breed descends directly from the pets that the Romans scratched behind their ears.
I didn’t tell the bitch herself, who would rather remain anonymous as the internet can be vicious. And I doubt she pays much attention to genealogical plots. His interests, from what I can see, turn more to candy bars, arrogant and intolerable chipmunks, and smelly places to hang out.
It is not just Maltese amateurs who are interested in the ancient roots of their breed. The Basenjis, Pomeranians, Samoyeds, Salukis, Terriers and others have supporters who want to trace races back to Antiquity. But the Maltese seemed a good dog to discuss because the historical record is so rich. Obviously, the Maltese is an ancient breed. Law?
I’ve asked this question of several of the scientists I turn to when I have questions about dog DNA. Is the modern Maltese breed in fact ancient? Scientists, you will be shocked to learn, said no. But, as with anything to do with dogs and science, it’s complicated.
A few points to set the scene. All dogs are descended from the first dogs, just as all humans can trace their ancestry back to the first Homo sapiens. None of us, or our dogs, have ancestry older than any other. What people seem to want to know is whether these ancestors were mutts or nobles, William the Conqueror or one of the vanquished, a dog on his knees who entered a portrait, or a dog in the street who got into trouble.
I don’t look at it from the outside, by the way. I went there myself, digging as deep as I could into the long and honorable history of my cairn terriers and Pomeranians. I also tried to trace the O’Connors and O’Leary’s and the Fallons and Goritzes of my family. (I haven’t found any conquerors yet.) But the idea of ââvaluing genetic purity is sometimes frightening, even if it’s in animals who like to roll in cow pies when they have 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 thirst for ancient ancestry is similar to the desire to return to the Mayflower for human history. âWe think of ourselves that way. So we think of our dogs that way.
âThe Pharaoh hound people were the first to approach me and ask me this question,â she recalls.
“Do our dogs really date from the time of the Pharaoh? asked the breeders. Unfortunately no. This breed, said Dr Ostrander, was “totally recreated by mixing and matching existing breeds” after World War II.
Other breeds were established by choosing a group of dogs that existed in the Victorian era and classifying them as a breed with a definition which meant that only dogs whose names were in a register or whose ancestors could be identified as being in this register corresponded to the race. And 2000 years ago, she said, âthe concept of race did not existâ.
DNA also does not show a direct line between ancient Maltese and modern Maltese. To understand what canine DNA research is, it’s worth taking a step back. The genetic markers that Dr. Ostrander and other researchers use in genome comparisons to identify breeds are usually not the genes that contain the recipe for floppy ears or bent legs or a certain coat color.
They’re not looking for a genetic recipe for a Bassett Hound or a Beagle, but a way to see how closely one relates to the other. Most of the DNA in humans and dogs has no known function. Only a part of a genome constitutes the real genesis. And repeating portions of DNA of unknown purpose, if any, have been found to be useful in comparing groups and individuals. They change more from generation to generation and thus provide more variation for scientists to work with to compare breeds. What the researchers develop is a racial imprint, but not a blueprint.
Neither Dr Ostrander nor Heidi Parker, a colleague and NIH collaborator, gave a firm answer on the origin of a breed, but they agreed that it essentially depended on how long a breed club had held records. records, not what was in a dog’s DNA. Before that time, breeding was not as regulated.
The genomes of Maltese, Havanese, Bichon and Bolognese (the dog not the sauce) are all linked, Dr Parker said. The races may have separated 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 races than the others. . But there is no DNA lineage to go back to Aristotle’s time.
When I asked Greger Larson of the University of Oxford, who studies the ancient and modern DNA of dogs and other animals, if any breeds date from antiquity, he looked, as far as I could tell from his Zoom image, as if I asked him if the Earth could be really flat.
âThe breeds have closed breeding lines,â he said. “That’s the idea. Once they’re established, you’re not allowed to bring anything into them. And this concept of breeding towards an aesthetic and closing the breeding line – everything. this is only in the UK in the mid-19th century.
âI don’t care if you’re talking about a pug, a New Guinea song dog, or a basenji,â he said. Races, by definition, are recent.
There have been, however, lines of dogs bred for hunting, or breeding, or herding sheep, for a long, long time. One of those lines, call it adjacent to Maltese, could be defined as “very small dogs with short legs and they require a lot of attention and people are in love with them,” Dr Larson said. This lineage was certainly present in ancient Rome.
My friend the Maltese partisan sent me pictures of old paintings. Mary Queen of Scots has a sort of little dog in a portrait from around 1580, but I have to say it looks more like the ghost of a Butterfly than a living Maltese. Queen Elizabeth also has a small dog in a portrait from the same period, which looks more or less 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 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 has not been changed,” said Dr Larson. “As Maltese has been Maltese for 2000 years. And that is clearly not true. Although ‘not true’ was not the expression he used.
âPeople don’t breed dogs like we’ve been doing for a very long time now,â he said. “What we lack in our vocabulary is a word for dogs that are mostly alike, doing the same kind of work.”
But, putting the 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 at the time? He said dog breeding in the past was never done by physical type, dogs moved as people moved, from Rome to Britain and back to Spain. and Rome, and that no one kept track of the pedigrees. Also, when the breeds were established, they were based on a limited number of dogs admitted to the breed at that time. This is called in genetics an extreme bottleneck. And all modern dogs are descended from only a few, unless there is some crossbreeding and mixing to change the appearance of the breed, which can happen.
You can now tell if your Maltese is really a Maltese by checking his pedigree or, if you want to dig into his genome, by sending (dog’s) saliva to a company like Embark, with over 100 employees looking for secrets of dog DNA, or an academic endeavor like Darwin’s Dogs, which is part of the Darwin’s Ark project at the University of Massachusetts. (The ark, without judgment here, includes cats.) Scientists involved in this work are also drawn to the question of the antiquity of the breed by curious dog owners and journalists.
Adam Boyko, co-founder of Embark and geneticist at Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine, agreed that modern breeds, with their âclosed populations,â are around 200 years old.
He said there is no doubt that little white dogs have a long history. âThey 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 what kind of genetic continuity there can be with modern little white dogs.
Even in human genealogy, where the human equivalent of a pedigree can be traced back 1,000 years, the idea of ââgenetic continuity is dissociated from the reality of genes.
Over the ages, each time a man and a woman produce offspring, they remove half of the DNA from each parent. The genetic deck is shuffled and half of the cards discarded. This shuffling happens over and over again. In each generation, it is as if two decks of 52 cards are shuffled to create a new deck that still has 52 cards.
âWhen you go back 10 generations,â said Dr. Boyko, most of those ancestors, 10 generations back, actually didn’t provide you with any DNA. It was mixed up. It’s the same with a Maltese. Even if there was a documented direct lineage, which is not the case, 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 School of Medicine who heads Darwin’s Ark, we can’t come to complete clarity on dog breeds because that “race” is used to mean different things by different people.
Speaking of dogs in art, she said: âIt could be that the dog in the painting just looks like a Maltese and has no connection with today’s Maltese. It could be that this dog actually has the exact same genetic variant that makes a Maltese small or makes a Maltese white. But, she added, âI don’t know if that makes them the same race or not. It’s kind of a cultural concept.
“Does that mean your Maltese is old because there was a former Maltese who had the same mutation?” I mean, it kind of depends on your perspective, âDr Karlsson said.