A note about The Cuddlywumps Chronicles

This blog is written and maintained by Miss Cuddlywumps, a fluffy-tailed calico cat who is both classically educated and familiar with mysteries. Comments or complaints should be addressed to Miss C rather than to author Roby Sweet. Ms. Sweet accepts no responsibility for Miss C's opinions.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Seven Tidbits on Early Cat Domestication

For years, cat lovers and scientists have believed that cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt. You may already know this story: The Egyptians began farming and storing grain, which attracted rodents, which attracted the local wildcats, which started hanging around human settlements. Humans encouraged the cats to stick around and eventually made pets of them. The Egyptians went further than that though, believing that the goddess Bastet could take the form of a cat. From Egypt, domestic cats spread to the rest of the world.

But is the traditional story of cat domestication correct?

Well, according to the latest study of cat domestication and dispersal, that original story may be partially correct, but the true picture is more complicated—and more interesting—than that simple tale. This post provides seven brief highlights from the study,[1] which analyzed DNA from ancient and modern cats across a wide temporal and geographic distance. The DNA used for analysis came from Europe, north and east Africa, and southwest Asia, and the time period covered was from about 7000 BC to the present. DNA from 352 ancient cats was analyzed, and modern wildcat DNA was sampled from 28 cats from Bulgaria and east Africa.

What did the researchers find? Here are our chosen tidbits, in roughly chronological order:

1. Cats were first domesticated in the ancient Near East.


Map of Fertile Crescent, public domain.
Map of the Fertile Crescent. Somewhere
in the red-shaded area (most likely in the
larger eastern bit on the right), cats were
first domesticated.
Original image by NormanEinstein.
Creative Commons: Attribution-ShareAlike.
Via Ancient History Encyclopedia.
You’ve heard of Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, where farming began? Well, according to the DNA analysis by Ottoni and colleagues, that area of southwest Asia is also where domestic cats began sometime in the Neolithic period (8,000 years ago, give or take). Think modern Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Iran. Some of the local wildcats, Felis silvestris lybica, were attracted to the rodents that were attracted to the humans’ stored grain. Eventually, some of those cats were tamed and domesticated.

2. Humans probably began transporting cats from place to place in prehistoric times.

Cats from the Near East may have arrived in southeast Europe by 4400 BC or thereabouts. Some of today’s domestic cats have DNA that came from these Near Eastern cats.

3. There is some evidence to suggest that domesticated cats in Egypt came from southwest Asia.

The idea that the Egyptians got their first cats from the Near East has been suggested before. Now there is evidence (in DNA from ancient cat remains found at a Roman-Egyptian port on the Red Sea and from one Egyptian cat mummy) that this may indeed have happened.

Detail of cat in painting from Tomb of Nebamun, ca. 1350 BC, Thebes, Egypt
Detail from a painting in the
Tomb of Nebamun, ca. 1350 BC,
Thebes, Egypt.
Public domain image, via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Egyptian cats seem to have become very popular, and this study provides “the first evidence for an African origin for one of the mitochondrial lineages of present-day domestic cats.”

It could be that the Egyptians developed a closer relationship with their cats, leading to cats that were tamer than their Near Eastern cousins. That cat napping on your couch could be descended from one of those Egyptian cats.

5. Humans spread cats throughout the eastern Mediterranean during Classical times.

We’re talking about the time of ancient Greece and Rome. Cats became popular across a wider area during this period, and they were recognized as being able to control rodent populations on ships, so the felines really started to get around. By the 6th century BC, cats were showing up on Greek pottery and coins and on a piece of pottery found at the Etruscan site of Vulci (in modern Italy).

6. Cats were further spread during Medieval times, when ships’ cats went along with humans who were traveling for trade or war.

Some evidence comes from a 7th-century cat found at a Viking port on the Baltic Sea and an 8th-century cat found at an Iranian port. There was also trade in pelts of domestic cats, and this too may also have encouraged cats’ spread.



7. Cats probably lived alongside humans for thousands of years before humans began breeding then for specific physical appearances.

The Arkesilas Cup, ca. 565-560 BC, Vulci, Italy.
The Arkesilas Cup, a black-figure kylix by the Arkesilas Painter, found at the Etruscan site
 of Vulci, ca. 565-560 BC. The king of Kyrene (far left) watches as men work with trade goods.
Several animals are depicted, including a cat under the king's chair.
© Marie-Lan Nguyen [Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic], via Wikimedia Commons. 
Hey, cats do what they want! This, by the way, is the tidbit that has led to headlines saying cats domesticated themselves. Because basically they did. Ottoni and colleagues looked at a specific gene that determines whether a tabby cat will have a mackerel or blotched coat pattern. Wildcats have a mackerel pattern, and a blotched pattern is seen in some domestic cats. So, the appearance and spread of the blotched pattern can be taken to mean that humans were beginning to influence cats’ physical appearance. In this study, the earliest occurrence of the blotched-tabby version of the gene was from the time of the Ottoman Empire (dated between AD 500 and 1300). The gene turned up later in other areas (AD 1300–1900).

Conclusion

We have been waiting for a study exactly like this--one that answers so many of our questions about where domestic cats actually come from. Next up on our wish list of cat research would be a study of early cats from farther east (India, China, and so on). We don't know if anyone is working on this, but we do hope so.


[1] Ottoni et al. “The Paleogenetics of Cat Dispersal in the Ancient World.” Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 0139 (2017).

6 comments:

  1. Cats have domesticated us well.

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  2. Very interesting. I don't like the part about trading cat pelts though.:(

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  3. One glimpse of kittens, and humans were enslaved forever!

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  4. That's cool. You learn something new every day.

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  5. This is so interesting. I love knowing that cats have been around plotting their world domination for such a long time :)

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  6. I find history fascinating, and history about cats even more so! This was very interesting, thanks for sharing!

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