Felis silvestris lybica, the
type of wildcat that gave rise
to modern domestic kitties.
By Donovan Reginald Rosevear
(The carnivores of West Africa).
[Public domain], via
You’ve probably heard a lot about how cat domestication occurred in ancient Egypt. You may also have heard that all modern domestic cats (including that one walking across your keyboard) are descended from the Near Eastern wildcat, known more formally as Felis silvestris lybica. Perhaps you’ve wondered whether the Near Eastern wildcat is the only species of wildcat ever to be domesticated by humans.
Well, I’m not going to answer that question…exactly. Because it still hasn’t been answered…exactly.
Here’s what’s happened: A new study has looked at some 5,300-year-old cat bones found in excavations of an ancient Chinese village, and according to the researchers, those bones belonged to leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis). Whether those leopard cats were actually “domesticated” or were just living near humans for the easy food is still an open question.
Some background on the cat domestication timeline
There’s been a lot of interest in figuring out just where domestic cats came from. In Egypt, 4,000-year-old paintings seem to depict domestic felines, and a cat burial on Cyprus from some 9,000 to 10,000 years ago seems to indicate that humans and cats were at least interacting by that early time, even if the cats were not fully domesticated.
Then a couple of years ago, a study of eight cat bones excavated from the Chinese agricultural village of Quanhucun showed that the cats were feeding on rodents that were eating grain stored in the village. These bones were dated to about 5,300 years ago, and they indicated that at least two cats were present. One of the cats had lived a good many years, so it must have had a relatively safe and healthy life in the village. Another cat ate more grain than you’d really expect a wildcat to eat, possibly indicating that this cat took food from humans.
So cats at least had a commensal relationship with humans over 5,000 years ago. In other words, the cats got some advantage (i.e., food) from the humans, but they weren’t “pets”; there were still wild.
Near Eastern wildcats...or something else?
|1896 illustration of a leopard cat, the "Javan variety."|
From Lloyd's Natural History: A hand-book
to the Carnivora. Part 1, Cats, civets, and mungoose
by Richard Lydekker. Wyman & Sons Limited
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
That’s all very interesting, but nobody knew what kind of cats the Quanhucun cats were. The Near Eastern wildcat is not native to that area of central China, so if the cats turned out to be that species (the species that, you’ll remember, gave rise to the domestic cat prancing on your keyboard), it would mean they’d been introduced from outside. That would raise a bunch of other questions (When? How? By whom?).
But if the Quanhucun cats were a whole different species, a local species, that would show that a second species of wildcat was on the road to domestication those several thousand years ago.
The possibilities, and the results
There are four different small wildcats living in the area today: the Central Asian wildcat, the Chinese mountain cat, the Pallas’s cat, and the leopard cat (specifically, the North Central Chinese subspecies of leopard cat). To find out which of these cat species might have lived with humans “back in the day,” the authors of the new paper compared the lower jaws (mandibles) of five “archaeological” cats to modern domestic and wild cats. The archaeological cat mandibles came from Quanhucun and two other sites in the central part of China. The researchers also looked at five archaeological mandibles from Cyprus to definitively identify their species. The Cypriot mandibles had been dated to 9,000–9,500 years old.
The title of this post has already told you the results: The Chinese cats showed “highly significant similarity” to modern leopard cats. This means they were in all likelihood leopard cats; the North Central China subspecies of leopard cat still lives in that area, and the species in general is known to adapt to human environments. In fact, the leopard cat has been bred with a modern domestic cat to produce the domestic Bengal cat.
The Cypriot cats were identified as Near Eastern wildcats, with 94% to 100% probability. That sounds pretty certain to me.
|A leopard cat in the Bronx Zoo. |
By Stavenn (Own work)
[GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0, or CC BY 2.5],
via Wikimedia Commons
Domestic or commensal?
Now that we know the ancient Chinese cats were “locals,” we have to ask whether they actually lived with humans (domestic) or just hung around for the easy food (commensal). According to the study authors, “the leopard cat most likely became a commensal species” at the sites where the bones were found. Yes, the extensive wear on the teeth of two mandibles from Quanhucun suggests that the “cat(s) may have been fed by humans.” And then there’s the complete cat skeleton found at a site called Wuzhuangguoliang. The careful treatment of the body could suggest that this cat—and perhaps others—had some kind of closer relationship with at least one human in the village. Also, the archaeological mandibles are on the small side in comparison to modern leopard cats; supposedly, domestic animals tend to be smaller than their wild forebears.
That evidence points to domestication, but… Well, we just don’t know for sure. At over 5,000 years’ distance, it’s hard to know if those leopard cats kept mostly to themselves as they furtively hunted rats in human villages, or if they cozied up to the humans for free food and maybe a nice, soft place to sleep.
Perhaps a new find will answer that question someday.