Cat's global conquest began in the Stone Age, study says

There are an estimated 500 million domestic cats in the world - one for every dozen or so people. But where do they come from and how have they become one of the most highly regarded pets? Researchers have solved the riddle.
There are an estimated 500 million domestic cats in the world - one for every dozen or so people. But where do they come from and how have they become one of the most highly regarded pets? Researchers have solved the riddle.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Domestic cats still resemble their wild cousins in almost all ways

PARIS • Long before they conquered ancient Egypt, cats seduced Stone Age farmers who launched the worldwide feline takeover of human homes and hearts, a DNA study has shown.

The first wildcat to travel abroad, and the forefather of domestic cats today, was Felis silvestris lybica - a small, striped Middle Eastern subspecies that went on to colonise the entire world, the research revealed. It likely travelled to Europe by ship from the region of Anatolia around modern-day Turkey, some 6,000 years ago.

"The cat's worldwide conquest began during the Neolithic period," the study authors wrote.

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.

With farming came harvest- munching rats, which in turn attracted cats.

"For ancient societies barn cats, village cats and ships' cats provided critical protection against vermin, especially rodent pests responsible for economic loss and disease," the researchers wrote in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

ANCIENT 'FAD'

The team analysed the DNA of 230 buried and mummified ancient cats in a bid to settle the debate over who was responsible for turning the wild feline into the cuddly couch-slouchers we know today.

Based on their obvious reverence for the feline - immortalised in statues, paintings and even mummified carcasses - the ancient Egyptians were thought by many to have been the first cat tamers several centuries BC.

But others have pointed to a cat skeleton found in a child's tomb in Cyprus from 7,500BC, as proof that ancients from the Fertile Crescent beat the Egyptians to it.

The DNA trawl shows we can thank both.

F. s. lybica, the researchers found, "started to spread at times when the first farmers started to migrate into Europe" around 4,400BC, said the study's co-author Dr Eva-Maria Geigl of France's CNRS research institute. "This can be taken as indication that they were translocated by humans, either by ship or on the ground," probably following ancient trade routes.

A few thousand years later, during the time of the pharaohs, an Egyptian variant of lybica also spread in a second wave into Europe and beyond, sparking somewhat of a "craze", the study authors said in a statement.

"This fad for Egyptian cats very quickly spread through the ancient Greek and Roman world and even much further afield."

Given that it would have looked a lot like its close cousin from Anatolia, the researchers speculate that the Egyptian cat's success was likely driven by its personality - "changes in its sociability and tameness".

500 MILLION DOMESTIC CATS

Wildcats are solitary, territorial hunters with no hierarchical social structure - seemingly poor candidates for domestication. Yet today, there are an estimated 500 million domestic cats in the world - one for every dozen or so people.

Their ancestor, F. s. lybica, is one of five wildcat subspecies still found in nature today. It lives in North Africa and around the Arabian peninsula.

Over millennia, domesticated cats interbred with other wildcat subspecies - including European - that they encountered on their global conquest. As a result, many European wildcats also have a bit of domestic cat, with lybica origins, in their genome today.

The study revealed that unlike for dogs or horses, humans did not breed cats for their looks - at least for the first few thousand years.

To this day, domestic cats closely resemble their wild cousins in terms of body build, function and behaviour. Dogs, by comparison, range in breed from a Rottweiler to a Chihuahua - neither of which reminds one of their wolf forefather.

When it started, selective breeding targeted mainly the cat's coat. The first time that a tabby colouring enters the gene record is during the Middle Ages, between the years 500 and 1300, the researchers found.

The spotted or blotched tabby pattern common in housecats today does not exist in wildcats, which are all striped.

"Only recently, during the 19th century, there were breeding programmes to obtain 'fancy breeds'," said Dr Geigl, adding that even these are "not very different from the wildcat".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2017, with the headline 'Cat's global conquest began in the Stone Age, study says'. Print Edition | Subscribe