A genetic research offers some clues about the history of the relationship between humans and cats

Cats buried in a 6000 year old pit in Hierakonpolis, Egypt (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition. All rights reserved)
Cats buried in a 6000 year old pit in Hierakonpolis, Egypt (Photo courtesy Hierakonpolis Expedition. All rights reserved)

An article published in the journal “Nature Ecology & Evolution” describes a genetic research on wild and domestic, ancient and modern cats. A team of researchers from the Belgian University of Leuven and the Belgian Royal Institute of Natural Sciences led by the paleogeneticist Claudio Ottoni analyzed the DNA of over 200 cats found in archaeological sites in the Near East, Africa and Europe with an age between 100 and 9,000 years to conclude that they were domesticated in two main waves in the Near East and Egypt.

The wildcat (Felis silvestris) is spread on various continents in five different subspecies but according to genetic analyzes today’s domestic cats are descended only from the subspecies Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat. European cats from 9,000 years ago, Balcans cats from 6,000 years ago, Anatolian cats that lived between 6,000 years ago and the end of the Ottoman Empire, Egyptian cats that lived between the third and the first century B.C. are all descendants of that wildcat subspecies.

To find out how the domestic cat has developed, Claudio Ottoni’s team pursued a complex research based on paleogenetics, a specialization concerning the DNA of ancient organisms, even extinct ones. In this case, it’s about wild and domestic cats, extant animals of which old bones that can be even various millennia old are available. The collaboration of the Paris Institute Jacques Monod and experts around the world who provided the bones helped to map at least part of the domestic cat’s history.

The fact that domestication of the cat took place in two main waves was a surprise for the researchers. Evidence are limited but a burial of a cat along with a human being in Cyprus dated around 7,500 B.C. suggests that probably the first great wave began at that time. Cats and humans started living together in farming communities where mice and rats were attracted to work waste.

The relationship between humans and cats has always been different from those between humans and dogs or other animals, so much that there are those who claim that cats are the one who “tamed” humans. 😉 Cats weren’t captured or willingly lured and placed in some cage or fence but probably started living close to humans on their own and the two species have become accustomed to a mutual vicinity.

Over the millennia, cats traveled with humans spreading to Egypt and then to Europe. In Greek and Roman times there was a second wave of domestication following the outbreak of a kind of collective passion for cats that went far beyond their utility against mice and rats. Their diffusion increased and between 500 and 800 B.C. they reached the Viking territories in the Baltic Sea.

Cats haven’t changed much from the genetic point of view over the millennia but some aspects of their look emerged in relatively recent times. For thousands of years, cats were generally striped while spots appeared in Ottoman times between 500 and 1,300 B.C. to become more common in later centuries.

What emerges from this research is that for millennia the relationship with the cat has been of mutual help while in recent times humans started selecting certain aesthetic features. The relationship between the two species is complex, so much that many think that defining the cat a pet is wrong.

The writer H.P. Lovecraft wrote in his tale “The Cats of Ulthar”: “He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten.”

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