DNA study reveals long tale of cat domestication

DNA study reveals long tale of cat domestication

The cat is starting to come out of the bag when it comes to revealing when and how wild felines became couch kitties.

“While the cat’s worldwide conquest began during the Neolithic period in the Near East, its dispersal gained momentum during the Classical period, when the Egyptian cat successfully spread throughout the Old World”, they said. Two major cat lineages contributed to the domestic feline we know today, they report in a study published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Archaeologists once thought that the Egyptians domesticated cats about 4,000 years ago, but that changed in 2004 when researchers reported on a 9,500-year-old cat and human burial in Cyprus, Live Science previously reported. “We can also deduce that there was a second (domestication) event taking place in Egypt where another cat lineage was tamed and spread in the Eastern Mediterranean during the 1st millennium BC”. “This was when animal domestication was invented”, Geigl said. “This was an ideal situation for us to analyse this in the ancient DNA”.

In the deepest dive yet into the genetic history of cats, molecular biologists Eva-Maria Geigl and Thierry Grange of the Institute Jacques Monod in Paris and colleagues collected mitochondrial DNA from 352 ancient cats and 28 modern wildcats. After that, cats infiltrated the rest of Europe, Africa, and Asia.

It’s not clear when cats became domesticated but the Egyptians might have had the first some 6,000 years ago. The blotched look may have spread rapidly because it helped people distinguish their kitties from all the mackerel look-alikes.

Domestic cats are descended from Felis silvestris lybica, the near eastern and north African wildcat, and are now found on all continents, except Antarctica, and in the most remote regions of the world.

“Both sides profited from each other”, she said.

Before early farmers started migrating from the Middle East to Europe, European wildcats (Felis silvestris silvestris) carried one mitotype, called clade I, the researchers found. “The cat is probably the wildest of the domestic animals”, said Grange. “Humans were happy there were less rodents, and the cats had food”. But it was in ancient Egypt that cats got their first real ego boost.

Cats were clearly tame by about 3,500 years ago in Egypt, where paintings often placed them beneath chairs. That rapid spread may indicate that cats traveled by boat.

Of course, farming brings its own problems, including infestations of rats and mice, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it is at this time that we see the first occurrence of a cat buried in a human grave.

There’s not enough evidence to say that, says behavioral geneticist Carlos Driscoll of the Laboratory of Comparative Behavioral Genomics at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

The results suggest that prehistoric human populations probably began carrying their cats along ancient land and sea trade routes to control rodents.

And they underwent another dramatic transformation: A separate analysis of the genes for coat color showed that the coat pattern of cats-which had gone unchanged from the striped sandy appearance of its wildcat ancestors for thousands of years-began to vary, with a blotched tabby look appearing around the 14th century C.E. Dogs and horses changed coat patterns much earlier in their domestication, suggesting that when it came to cats, people were more interested in how they acted than in how they looked. It seems that, because cats are so independent, territorial and, at times, downright antisocial, they were not so easy to domesticate as the co-operative, pack-orientated wolf.