Archeological evidence now tells us that cats have lived in association with humans for almost 10,000 years. Although it was long assumed that early Egyptians were the first human society to domesticate cats, in 2004 the earliest known cat burial associated with a human burial, dated around 7500 BCE, was found on the island of Cyprus. The almost complete skeleton found was that of an 8-month old cat, larger than a typical domestic cat, that was around the size of the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), from which species domestic cats descend. The animal’s skeleton showed no signs of butchering or burning and was carefully positioned in its grave, about 40 cm from the skeleton of a 30 year-old human of unknown sex, who was buried with polished stones, shells, tools, and ochre pigment. These grave goods, not present in other human burials in the area, suggested to the archeologists that the human buried with the cat was an individual of high social status.
The early Neolithic period, represented by this time frame, began around 10,000 years ago in the Near East and later in other parts of the world. Neolithic life was marked by the development of sedentary agricultural communities and crafts such as pottery and weaving, the domestication of animals, and the creation of polished stone tools. The cereal-growing communities of southwest Asia needed to protect their grain stores from rodents, so a commensal relationship arose between cats and humans in these early farming communities. Cyprus was settled in the early Neolithic by farmers from the mainlands that brought crops and herds with them…and it appears, cats as well.
Long before the cat was the cherished companion of home and hearth, cats were valued for their role in eliminating vermin, particularly rodents, on farms, ships, and in warehouses and granaries. It has been said that the development of human civilization would not have been possible without the cat, dog, horse, and cow. The focus of this study was to use genetic evidence from both ancient and modern cats from Europe, northern and eastern Africa, and southwest Asia, to learn more about the domestication and subsequent distribution of cats throughout the Old World. This was a challenging task due to the limited number of ancient cat remains for analysis.
Small wildcats of the Old World that could have been candidates for domestication belong to the species Felis silvestris. This species comprises five subspecies: Felis silvestris silvestris, present in eastern and western Europe only; Felis silvestris lybica, widely dispersed in north Africa and the Near and Middle East; Felis silvestris ornata, present in central Asia and the Indian subcontinent; Felis silvestris cafra, found in southern Africa; and Felis silvestris bieti, the easternmost subspecies, also known as the Chinese mountain cat. Ultimately, Felis silvestris lybicawas the only subspecies that was actually domesticated.
Genomic evaluation of nuclear short tandem repeats (STRs) and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), the latter passed to descendants through the maternal line, in modern wild and domestic cats, confirms this subspecies as the sole wild ancestor of the domestic cat. The authors use this evidence to show that both Near Eastern and Egyptian maternal cat lineages originating from Felis silvestris lybicahave contributed to the genome of the modern domestic cat.
Analysis of mtDNA from modern wild and domestic cats demonstrated the presence of 5 clades corresponding to the 5 subspecies of Felis silvestris. Mitochondrial DNA from present-day domestic cats comes from 5 subclades (IV-A to IV-E) of the Felis silvestris lybica clade. These 5 subclades are quite genetically diverse and geographically mixed, indicating the probability of multiple domestication episodes as well as possible ongoing genetic exchange between wild and domestic cats in different parts of the Eastern Hemisphere subsequent to the geographic dispersal of domestic cats.
Given the opportunity, domestic cats still can and do interbreed with local small wildcats, and the authors hypothesize that regular and historical genetic flow between these groups has resulted in minimal differentiation between the genomes and phenotypic expression of small wildcats and domestic cats. Also, it is likely, given the small wildcat’s solitary hunting lifestyle, that these animals simply lived commensally with humans for millennia before humans took an active role in breeding them. This is in contrast to dogs, one of the most genetically plastic species, purpose-bred from antiquity to fill a variety of roles useful to people. It is not until the Medieval period in the Near East that domestic cats were observed to develop coat patterns that varied from those of their wild relatives, suggesting that humans were beginning to intervene in and direct their breeding.
Remains of cats belonging to subclade IV-A have been found in Anatolia (the Asian Turkish mainland) as early as 8000 BCE, and then in later burials in Bulgaria (4400 BCE), Romania (3200 BCE), and Greece (1200 BCE). This geographic and temporal distribution suggests dispersion of this subclade by humans. Cat remains from Egypt, including three mummies, ranging from the 7thcentury BCE to 4thcentury CE belong to two IV-C lineages, IV-C1 and IV-C*. The genome associated with IV-C1 had spread to areas that are now Bulgaria, Jordan, and Turkey by the 8thcentury BCE through the 5thcentury CE. The two IV-C haplotypes become common in Europe and southwestern Asia between 600-1400 CE; they were absent in any specimens from these areas prior to the 8thcentury BCE.
By the 7thcentury CE, the IV-C1 haplotype had arrived at a Viking trading port on the Baltic Sea, and at a port in Iran by the 8thcentury CE. In western Anatolia, cats of the IV-C1 and C* lineages significantly outnumbered those of the local IV-A haplotype by the first millennium CE, suggesting that cats of Egyptian lineage may have been the most desirable, possibly because they were better socialized, to farmers, sailors, and traders.
Neolithic people of the Mediterranean area recognized the value of cats to human settlements, lived in a probably largely commensal relationship with them, and dispersed them geographically. Based on the mtDNA lineages documented above as well as evidence from their art, the Egyptians may have taken this domestication a step farther and cultivated the human-cat bond that is so appreciated today. Early Egyptian art depicts cats in their primitive conventional role as catchers of prey, while images of Egyptian cats after 1500 BCE often show them as pets, commonly sitting under a woman’s chair. Multiple cat burials in an elite Egyptian cemetery for humans dating from about 3700 BCE also suggest an interest in cultivating cat-human relationships among these people. Although cat trading was forbidden in Egypt as early as 1700 BCE, somehow the cats with IV-C mtDNA found their way all over the Old World anyway.
Intentional breeding of domestic cats really did not begin in any significant way until the 1800s. Cats depicted in pre-Medieval Egyptian, west Asian, and European art have striped coats that are very similar to the mackerel tabby pattern of Felis silvestris lybica, suggesting that domesticated cats were not bred for physical traits or appearance until relatively late in history. The blotched tabby pattern, found in 80% of modern domestic cats, is a result of a single nucleotide polymorphism in the Taqpepgene that codes for tabby markings. Southwest Asia’s Ottoman Empire (1300 CE) was the first place that the blotched tabby recessive allele (W841X) was identified, and this allele continued to increase in frequency in Europe, Africa and southwestern Asia in subsequent centuries. [PJS]
Driscoll CA, Clutton-Brock J, et al. The taming of the cat. Genetic and archaeological findings hint that wildcats became housecats earlier—and in a different place—than previously thought. Sci Am. 2009;300:68-75.