Ancient DNA Shows Cats Domesticated Themselves Ages Ago

Cats haven’t always been the little domesticated creatures we know today. They weren’t the type of animal to jump into a human’s lap and give the affection that we now are used to getting from them. There have been comprehensive studies on cats over the years and through some of the recent studies, DNA analysis gives us reason to believe that cats lived for thousands of years alongside of humans before they made a turn to the domestic side. During those early years, the genes of a cat have not changed much from that of their wild ancestors, aside gaining one new trait commonly seen today, the stripes and dots of a tabby cat we are familiar with today.

Researchers have studied the DNA of the remains of over 200 cats from the last 9,000 years. This includes Egyptian cat mummies and Romanian cat remains, as well as specimens of African wildcats. They have discovered there are two major lineages that are responsible for contributing to the domestic cat that we all know today. This report was published Monday, in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The report details the earlier ancestors of today’s domesticated cats, showing that these lineages of our modern cat were found to have lived from southwest Asia into Europe as far back as 4400 B.C. It is believed that more than likely they began to hang out around the farming communities in the Fertile Crescent some time around 8,000 years ago. A mutual relationship was formed when the cats began taking over the task of rodent control for the humans. Like mice and rats are known to do, they hang out where the food is, and were attracted to the crops. In turn, the cats followed these rodents to the agricultural areas and would begin to befriend the humans. It was most likely the first contact these cats had with humans, according to the study coauthor, Claudio Ottoni of the University of Leuven. Ottoni. It is believed that it wasn’t that people were taking cats and putting them into cages, in a way of domesticating them. But rather just allowed the cats to coexist with the humans, and therefore, over time, they domesticated themselves.

Around 1500 B.C., a second lineage of African cats existed that dominated Egypt. The lineage spread into the Mediterranean and most of the Old World. It is believed that this lineage had a lot of characteristics and behaviors that humans liked and were attracted to, such as, tameness and their ability to socialize with the humans. Because of the developing relationship, the human population began taking their cats with them when they traveled the sea trade routes for rodent control on the ships.

The Tabby emerges and grows in popularity

Those that have studied the history of domesticated cats have seen the changes in cats over time, starting before they even began to travel with humans across the globe. Although the genetic makeup between wild and domestic cats were very similar, one that was different and had begun to show up more frequently over the years, was the markings of a tabby coat. The striped, or blotched markings of a tabby coat started to make its appearance in the Middle Ages. The gene for this coat was seen as early as the Ottoman Empire in Southwest Asia and it later became common in other places, such as Europe and Africa. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that these markings could clearly enough and common enough that they could be associated with the domestic cat. Later, in the 19th century, cat lovers purposefully began to breed cats with these traits in order to create special, and fancier cat breeds.

Developing into the Purr-fect pet

Evolutionary geneticist and coauthor, Eva-Maria Geigl, says that really, cats have not changed that much from wild to domestic, since their beginning. They still look similar to the wildcats, however, today, domestic cats are not solitary animals, unlike the wild. They are not only tolerant of humans, but they love to be around both humans and other cats.

This much different than comparing the domestication of dogs. Where dogs were specifically selected to perform certain duties, cats never were. Because of the need for task performance by dogs, humans began to select specific breeds and interbreed them for the purpose of creating a diverse selection of dogs to choose from to fit their needs. That is how the wide variety of dog breeds exists today. for particular traits is what led to dogs’ diversification to the many breeds we see today.

Geigl has said that she believes that cats were not subjected to the selection process during the domestication years, and they have relatively remained the same animal, because there wasn’t a need to change them. Cats were perfect the way they were. Although not everyone is a fan of the cat, nor will they agree that they are the perfect pet, they remain one of the most popular house pets, today. As a matter-of-fact, they are so popular that today, over 74 million cats live in homes as pets, across the U.S.

According to Ottoni, it has been interesting to learn about the lineage and history of cats. To see where they have come from, how far they’ve gone in the domestic world, and the impact that they’ve made on humans has been incredible. He goes on to say, “I think studying more about this species is going to open up even more about the domestication process.”


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