Ancient DNA Reveals Role Of Near East And Egypt In Cat Domestication

A new study of cat skeletons spanning more than nine thousand years traced the spread of felines from their native home in the Middle East to various places around the world.

"Both Near Eastern and Egyptian cat lineages contributed at different times to the maternal genetic pool of domestic cats, with one or other present in the vast majority of present-day cat breeds", the researchers said.

He gathered hundreds of cat specimens-bones, teeth, and mummies from across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East dating from about 7000 B.C.E.to the 19th century C.E. Then, he teamed up with more than two dozen researchers who drilled into the remains for mitochondrial DNA, genetic material inherited exclusively from the mother and found in the cell's energy-generating machinery.

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. The DNA evidence showed that around 9,000 years ago, farmers were seem to be the first people to tame wild cats and took them to travels.

Scholars have in fact debated the degree to which cats are truly domesticated. "It's not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages". They stored grain, which drew rodents, which in turn attracted wild cats. It was in Egypt that cats really got their furry paws under the table and became not just part of the family but objects of religious worship.

The Neolithic was the closing chapter of the Stone Age - a time when prehistoric humans, hunter-gatherer nomads until then, first tried their hand at cultivating crops and building permanent villages. In the Near East some 9,000 years ago, farmers are the ones likely to have successfully tamed them.

However, it wasn't until the Middle Ages, after thousands of years of living alongside humans, that cats (Felis silvestris) were bred to have fancy coats, the researchers found. The idea that the Egyptians helped shape the modern cat, she says, "makes ideal sense".

Cats have made it to all continents except Antarctica. Talking about dogs, it's easier to distinguish dogs from wolf ancestors.

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.

The findings were published Monday in the journal Nature. And that makes sense since the civilization's paintings depict only cats with stripes, rather than spots or blotches, the researchers said. This process was eventually helped by a more concerted breeding attempt in the 18th century, creating the much-loved domestic short-haired or "tabby" cat we know today.

Ancient peoples used a cat "as a pest-control agent, object of symbolic value and companion animal", the study said.

Not long after the early farmers migrated into Europe about 7,000 years ago, cats began showing up in sites further west, too, suggesting they followed - and were allowed to.

The first lines of cats, called IV-A, were originally from southwest Asia, but brought to Europe in about 4400 BC. It also appeared more than 5,000 years ago in Romania, as well as around 3,000 years ago in Greece. It was found in a seventh-century sample from a Viking trading port in northern Europe, and an eighth-century sample from Iran. But the genetic study suggests that at some point, people began to desire cats with different distinct appearances.

  • Carolyn Briggs