Cats are so nice, they conquered the world twice. That’s the takeaway from a new genetics-based analysis of how cats became domesticated and spread across ancient communities. Cats first attempted to coexist with humans 9,000 years ago in the Near East, based on the results published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution, but did not gain a solid foothold until thousands of years later, when a second wave stormed out of Africa. The study also reveals where tabby cats and their blotched fur originated, though researchers argue ancient peoples started the practice of keeping felines for practical reasons — hunting vermin — rather than aesthetic ones.
What they studied
- A European team of geneticists and archaeologists collected and examined DNA from the bones and dental remains of 209 ancient and modern cats.
- Specimens came from archaeological sites across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
- The remains spanned 9,000 years, from Mesolithic period to the 20th century, and covered the five known species of wildcats: Near Eastern wildcat, central Asian wildcat, European wildcat, southern African wildcat and the Chinese desert cat. Of these five, only the Near Eastern wildcat was ultimately tamed by humans.
- The team analyzed DNA from mitochondria, a structure known as the cell’s powerhouse, which contains its own separate genetic code. Mitochondrial DNA in most species is inherited through mothers and not fathers. It’s a popular tool for studying how populations migrate over time.
What they found
- The DNA analysis showed that domesticated cats started in 8,000 B.C. in Anatolia — modern-day Turkey — with Near Eastern wildcats, which had been suggested by a study published in 2007. The adoption of cats happened many millennia after canines, with earliest evidence of dog domestication dating to 33,000 years ago.
- Cats likely became friends with humans due to the rise of agriculture in this region. Farmers stored grain. Grain attracted mice. Mice drew in the cats, and then farmer began keeping cats for pest control.
- But then, cats sort of got stuck. Domesticated cats did not spread outside of Anatolia and into eastern Europe, particularly Bulgaria and Romania, for another 3,600 years.
- A second wave of domestication pushed Near Eastern wildcats as far north as Viking territory several thousand years later. These cats dispersed from Egypt, from 8th century B.C. to 5th century A.D, into Europe. This lineage also moved to East, as far as Iran, during this time.
- The cats moved along the Mediterranean trade routes during Classical antiquity. One of the oldest records of cats mingling with humans comes from an early farming village on Cyprus from 7,500 B.C., where humans and cats were buried together.
- Domesticated cats continued to conquer Europe, spreading into the Viking trading port of Ralswiek in present-day Germany on the Baltic Sea by 7th century A.D.
- The emergence of tabby cats supports the idea that the cats were not domesticated for their pleasurable looks. The team’s DNA analysis revealed the blotched fur of tabbys first arose in western Turkey in the Middle Ages, around the 14th century. This fur pattern spread across Europe by the 19th century, thanks to cat breeding.
Why it matters
- First, if the internet is any indicator, humans love cats.
- Second, we likely reshaped global biodiversity by migrating cats across the world, given cats have been linked to 63 extinctions just in modern history. By tracking the history of cat migrations, scientists can elucidate where, when and to what extent human behavior applied pressure to the evolution of biodiversity.