These days, cats spend most of their time starring in YouTube videos, although before the Internet was made of cats, these adorably aloof felines had a range of other jobs that made them useful companions for mankind. As a result, we have tended to bring them along with us on our empirical voyages, allowing them to expand their own territory across the globe. Now, a new study has attempted to retrace the long journey of the domestic cat, with the aim of determining their origin and dispersal history.
Presenting their research at the recent International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, the team explained how they sequenced mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 209 cats found at archaeological sites in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The earliest of these sites was dated to about 15,000 years ago, shortly before the agricultural revolution, while the most recent was from the 18th century.
Results indicated that cats spread across the world in two waves, the first of which had its roots in the eastern Mediterranean, close to the so-called Fertile Crescent where mankind made the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers. According to the researchers, it’s likely that these early agriculturalists noticed the benefits of keeping wild cats nearby in order to kill any rodents that fed on their grains. As a result, they probably began domesticating these cats, and carried them with them as they expanded through the region.
A second genetic lineage was then found in cats across much of Eurasia and Africa several millennia later, first appearing in Egypt around 2,500 years ago. It is well known that cats played a prominent role in Ancient Egyptian society and mythology, and it is likely that these feline pharaohs were the progenitors of many modern house cats. The study authors even report that this same mitochondrial DNA was later found in a cat buried at a Viking site in Germany, which gives an indication of just how intertwined human and feline history are.
According to the researchers, cats probably began accompanying humans on their global journeys once sailors began recruiting them to act as pest control officers on their ships, which is why pretty much everywhere that people live today, domestic cats are never too far away.