An About Face on Molosser Origins
Science is elastic. It shifts and expands and contracts with the infuriating slipperiness of a double-jointed circus performer.
One day, you’re applying leaches. The next, you’re ordering an MRI.
But that is its joy — and frustration. Science is never finished, never completely conclusive. What was true yesterday may not be true today. As knowledge develops, so does our understanding of all its tenses — past, present and future.
To that end, this article revisits a research topic that was in the news several years ago: The idea that the various Molosser breeds are not part of a longstanding genetic family who influence spans continents and millennia. But rather, that the various breeds in different geographic areas arose spontaneously from their own local populations.
For years, Molosser fanciers perpetuated the assertion that their impressive dogs had a millennia-old lineage tracing back to the giant dogs of ancient Mesopotamia, so beautifully depicted in the bas reliefs surviving from that ancient civilization. Another version of this creation story proposed the Tibetan Mastiff as the grandfather of all the Molosser breeds.
Six years ago, the geneticists at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, blew that purebred lore out of the water, suggesting that maybe the world’s Molossers aren’t related after all.
In their landmark study, published in Cell Reports magazine, the researchers grouped breeds in “clades,” or geo-genetic groups (below) that were related to one another. So the Mastiff and Bullmastiff grouped together with some other British-derived breeds, including the Bulldog and Bull Terrier, while the Tibetan Mastiff belonged to an Asian clade, together with the Akita and Shiba Inu. The Cane Corso clustered, not surprisingly, with the Neapolitan Mastiff.
From 2017 Cell Reports, "Genomic Analyses Reveal the Influence of Geographic Origin, Migration, and Hybridization on Modern Dog Breed Development."
“The lack of admixture across clades that appear to share a common trait suggests that these traits may have arisen independently, multiple times,” the authors wrote. “For example, these data show no recent haplotype sharing between the giant flock guards of the Mediterranean and the European mastiffs … ” noting that the two groups of dogs had different functions.
“The phylogenetic placement of these breeds and lack of recent admixture suggests that giant size developed independently in the different clades and that it may have been one of the earliest traits by which breeds were segregated thousands of years ago,” the authors concluded.
So, put another way: In terms of genetic relatedness, the Mastiff has more in common genetically with fellow British breeds like the Bull Terrier than it does with the Neapolitan Mastiff or Dogue de Bordeaux. And that is because, the researchers theorized, it arose spontaneously from that British population, instead of having been brought there from afar.
I duly wrote a story, and thought no more of it.
Well, that’s not true. I actually did think about it — a lot — over the intervening years, although not necessarily in Molosser terms at first.
Have Ship, Will Travel
Despite the absence of Jet Blue in Sumeria, the ancients did not stay put. They travelled, sometimes surprisingly great distances.
Arabs didn’t just traverse the desert on camels; they also mastered the high seas, crisscrossing the globe to import and export a variety of goods thousands of years ago, long before the arrival of Islam. The eunuch explorer and mariner Zheng He travelled the ocean blue from 1405 to 1433 on ships reportedly as large as football fields, with hundreds of sailors stationed on four decks, voyaging to East Africa, various parts of Asia and the Arabian Peninsula.
A statue of Chinese admiral Zheng He from the Chinese Gardens in Singapore.
Consider another well-travelled bunch, the Vikings. Some 1,200 years ago, these hearty Scandinavians began conquering swaths of Europe, eventually arriving in the British Isles. Despite their reputation for being fearless, often brutal warriors, the Vikings were pretty woke. That is, they valued diversity. Rather than being threatened by or wanting to destroy anything different or unfamiliar, they took the time to understand it, and, if they determined it had value, incorporated it into their culture. (This is the source of the famed Scandinavian capacity for tolerance and inclusion, derived not from modern-day snowflakes, but rather bloodthirsty warriors of a millennia ago!)
To that end, the Vikings, it turns out, were fascinated by dwarfism in all species. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that J.R.R. Tolkien took so much inspiration for his fictional Middle Earth in “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” from Viking mythology, which included, of course, dwarves. Not coincidentally, the Swedish Vallhund is a dwarf breed, resulting from the same biological condition — achondroplasia — as humans.
The Swedish Vallhund. Could it be the progenitor of so many short-legged European breeds we know today?
Isn’t it logical that long-ago voyagers like the Vikings would bring their dogs with them, if not as a source of protection or sustenance, then as a potential valuable gift to be bartered or presented to an important personage? Does it not make sense that the Vikings would travel with their proto-Vallhunds to every corner of their far-flung kingdom? And don’t you see a string of short-legged breeds in their westward wake across the Continent? The Dachshund of Germany? The Corgis and short-legged Terriers of England, Scotland and Wales? Did the Corgi really just pop up of its own genetic accord in its rural UK clade, along with the Whippet and Old English Sheepdog? Or did some long-ago Thor type just bring its ancestors along for the ride?
The Oseberg ship, built in 820 AD, was excavated intact from a grave mound in 1904. It is the centerpiece of the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.
I can’t take credit for all this Viking insight, by the way: That belongs to Jeff Bazell, whose work with the soon-to-be-AKC-recognized Lancashire Heeler brought him onto that trail of discovery.
In recent correspondence, one of the paper’s authors, Elaine Ostrander — whose lab is responsible for much of the canine-genome work done at NIH — told me her researchers don’t necessarily believe that breeds arose independently of one another, either.
“There were definitely breed types that have been around for millennia that travelled with humans all across the world, which is why the types end up in so many disperse locales,” she explains. “The modern breeds were refined within these locales by isolation and probably local admixture, which gives us many of the geographic groupings that show up in analysis such as the 2017 paper.”
In other words, it’s not that the members of these clades necessarily evolved together. Instead, a new type of dog — using “breed” in this context is premature — arriving millennia ago from a far-away place would by necessity interbreed with the local dogs in that clade, populating and mixing to the point where its foreign origins were eventually obscured.
Ostrander reminds that the study was only analyzing the relationships between dogs over the last two centuries. “It is the much earlier history that has been harder to extract.”
Molossers could very well be just one “morphotype” that was distributed across the globe over centuries, she says. Conversely, there are “hints” of the independent development of the same traits in some Molossers, which could, she concedes, “be due to isolation/re-creation of some breeds rather than separate development.”
Big Dogs, Big Gifts
We know from history that several categories of dogs — Molossers among them — were largely the province of the higher classes, which alone had the resources to feed and maintain them. And we have bas-relief images of what are undisputably Molossers existing in Mesopotamia, the earliest urban civilization in the world, around 4000 to 3500 B.C.
The Molosser-type dogs of Ninevah in ancient Assyria existed some 6,000 years ago.
We also know that, when visiting a foreign land, the gift of an impressive and discernibly well-bred animal was a sure bet for impressing a jaded monarch. Rulers of old maintained kennels, and the arrival of such a trophy from afar would inevitably mean interbreeding — and then inbreeding — with the pack, especially if some of the newcomer’s traits were deemed desirable.
With this in mind, it’s certainly possible that the broad-mouthed, short-muzzled, heavily boned dogs of Babylon and Assyria — which we now call Iraq — found their way out of the region and into the Mediterranean, where perhaps they evolved into the original Molosser, of the Greek region of Epirius, which extended into modern-day Albania. As the Greek empire faded, perhaps those canine embers were transferred to the Romans, who in turn made their way west to England.
As for those huge dogs depicted in Mesoptamian carvings, were they the source of all the world’s Molosser breeds? Possibly, or perhaps the root stock came from elsewhere.
The Babylonians and Assyrians, after all, were incredibly active traders, as were the Iraqis who emerged later, their traders travelling as far as Siberia to obtain much-valued furs. And if Middle Easterners were travelling north to the most isolated parts of now-Russia, somewhere along the line they had to be exposed to the large livestock guardian breeds of Eurasia, who themselves have to be related to the Tibetan Mastiff.
The Central Asian Shepherd Dog is one of the large livestock guardian dogs of Eurasia. Did it contribute to early Molosser types?
On the Cell Reports circular graphic representing the clades, Tibetan Mastiffs group together with Alaskan Malamutes and Chinese Shar-Pei, among others. Both of those breeds do conceivably have some Eurasian Molosser admixture. The heavy bone and “bulky” muzzle of the Malamute are not to be found among spitz-type breeds, where medium size is fixed; in all the other spitz breeds that are greater than medium sized — think Akita and Tosa Inu — some Molosser blood was added along the way to give more scope. And though it is not a large breed, the Chinese Shar-Pei is sometimes classified as a Molosser, with possibly some recent crosses to Neapolitan Mastiff add the wrinkling that was so in demand during the breed’s popularity spike in the 1970s.
A 2008 genetic study out of China seems to support this, showing that the Tibetan Mastiff’s origins predated most other breeds, and that its genetic signature can be found in other Western breeds, including the Saint Bernard.
In the end, of course, of course, there is no definitive proof of any of this.
“These questions keep us busy, though, as do many other things,” Ostrander concludes. “We are working on better ways to assess more ancient sharing in our current studies and have been focusing on breeds and breed types that are rarely seen outside the region where they were developed, as well as more dogs from the Near East to add more information. We are also including archeological data where possible to try to improve on the timelines for the appearance of divergent types.”
Fanciers without laboratories to slice and dice chromosomes like so many Ginzu knives can still theorize about this fascinating subject simply by using their powers of observation. Knowing the origins and development of breeds other than your own feeds this canine sleuthing, because as that knowledge grows, so will the connections between seemingly unrelated canine populations.
A male Broholmer, Denmark's answer to the Mastiff.
In fact, just typing this story has me thinking of new possibilities. Those Vikings likely also had Mastiff types, perhaps the ancestors of Denmark’s little-known Broholmer. Could that have been the vehicle through which Molosser blood was introduced to Britain?
We might never know, but it’s sure fun wondering …