Researchers are Analyzing 9000 Year Old DNA from 209 Ancient Cats

Modern researchers have more tools than ever with which to study history, with an excellent example being DNA. Granted, it is far from being perfect, but DNA is nonetheless something that can prove useful under a remarkable range of circumstances, not least because historical circumstances sometime lead to it being available when most people would not expect it to be. This can be seen in a recent study that saw scientists examining the DNA of more than 200 cats from more than 9,000 years of human history in an effort to understand how it is that the cat has become so popular with people.

How Was the Cat Domesticated?

First and foremost, while it seems probable that the exact story won’t ever be known, it is clear that the cat has been domesticated for thousands and thousands of year. After all, scientists have recovered a cat that was buried with a human on Cyprus from 9,500 years ago. This indicates that the cat had been domesticated by that point in time because it couldn’t have gotten onto the island unless humans had brought either it or its ancestors with them on a sea voyage, thus excluding wild animals that would’ve resisted such an effort.

With that said, there are some theories about how the cat might have been domesticated. In particular, it is worth noting the idea that the cat might have domesticated itself in a sense. Essentially, the idea is that when people started farming for their food rather than survive on a combination of hunting and gathering, people started building granaries in which to store their food. These structures became popular sites for rodents and other forms of vermin, which in turn, made them popular sites for cats that would predate upon them. Over time, the cats that did best were the cats that got along well with humans, which is how the Agricultural Revolution led to the domestication of the house cat.

How Did the Cat Become Such an Important Part in Our Lives?

Regardless, the study was intended to reveal the path that cats took to become so popular in modern times. This is challenging because modern cats in different parts of the world are very similar to one another in a genetic sense, which is why the scientists had to study the DNA of so many cats preserved from both historical and prehistorical times.

As it turns out, it seems that the domestication of cats happened in close correspondence with the adoption of agriculture. This can be seen in how the cat was domesticated in the Near East, which was where the Agricultural Revolution seems to have started up as well. From that point on, the cat followed in the footsteps of agriculture as it spread, which makes a fair amount of sense because cats were so useful for keeping problematic vermin under tight control. However, it is important to note that the spread of cats wasn’t a perfect, one-for-one correspondence with the spread of agriculture, not least because historical trends tend not to be so simple and straightforward.

In time, cats continued to follow in the footsteps of humans, which is unsurprising because they proved to be useful companions. In particular, cats accompanied humans to a remarkable range of places via ships, which happened because cats were great for predating upon the rats and other vermin that could be found upon them. Something that was critical on land but became much more so in ships because of how vermin could eat limited stores, chew through rope, and cause all sorts of havoc in their confined spaces.

Of course, there are still many questions that remain unanswered about the history of cats and humans. For instance, there is still confusion over the precise point at which cats became domesticated, which is particularly contentious because the exact definition of domestication is still blurrier than what anyone would like. Curiously, the same study looked into the presence of the gene for tabby cats, which is relevant because an increase in the range of colors tends to be associated with the domestication of an animal. Strangely, the tabby gene doesn’t seem to have been widespread until 1300 AD, which suggests that the deliberate breeding of cats for desirable traits to human didn’t happen until very late in the process. Due to this, the jokes about cats being half wild animals that haven’t been wholly domesticated might actually have some slight basis to them.

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