How Old is the Maltese Dog Breed?

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“The tiny Maltese,” the American Kennel Club tells us, “has been sitting in the lap of 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 invoked the Greeks and the Romans as early admirers of the breed.

I have these conversations on occasion with people who are devoted to one breed or another and I usually nod and say, well, maybe, sort of. True, Aristotle did praise the proportions of a kind of lap dog described as a Melitaean dog. Scholars debate whether this meant the dog came from Malta, or another island called Melite or Miljet, or maybe 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 loved these dogs.

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

I have not mentioned this to the dog herself, who would prefer to remain anonymous because the internet can be vicious. And I doubt she would pay much attention to genealogical intrigue. Her interests, from what I can see, run more toward treats, arrogant and intolerable chipmunks and smelly places to roll around in.

It’s not just Maltese fanciers who are interested in their breed’s ancient roots. Basenjis, Pomeranians, Samoyeds, Salukis, terriers and others have supporters who want to trace the breeds back to ancient times. But the Maltese seemed a good dog to discuss because the historical record is so rich. Obviously the Maltese is an ancient breed. Right?

I brought this question to several of the scientists I turn to when I have dog DNA questions. Is the modern Maltese breed, in fact, ancient? The scientists, you will be shocked to learn, said no. But, as with anything involving dogs and science, it’s complicated.

A couple of points to set the stage. All dogs are descended from 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. What people seem to want to know is whether those ancestors were mutts or nobles, William the Conqueror or one of the conquered, a dog on a lap who got into a portrait, or a dog on the street who got into trouble.

I’m not looking at this from the outside, by the way. I’ve been…

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