Cats have successfully managed to manipulate humans into giving them the world. Found on every continent except Antarctica, felines are a dab hand at invasion, yet they had more than a helping hand from their two-legged slaves. Now researchers have uncovered exactly when and where cats began their takeover.
The domestic cat is known to be descended from the wildcat (Felis silvestris). Native to Europe, Africa, and large parts of Asia, the wild cat is divided into five established subspecies, all of which look basically identical when all that is left is a skeleton. Yet by genetically analyzing the remains of 352 cats from Namibia to France dating between 9,000 and 100 years old, researchers have been able to pinpoint where the creatures first crossed the threshold.
Their results seemed to confirm what many have previously assumed, that domestic cats are all descended from a single subspecies, Felis silvestris lybic, around 10,000 years ago, most probably bred by farmers as pest control. They found that rather than there being a single origin for the domestication of cats, it might have actually occurred in two locations across the Near and Middle East.
“It's still unclear… whether the Egyptian domestic cat descends from cats imported from the Near East or whether a separate, second domestication took place in Egypt,” Claudio Ottoni, who co-authored the study in Nature Ecology and Evolution, pointed out, though. “Further research will have to show.”
Externally, cats seem pretty poor candidates to undergo the domestication process: They are solitary, territorial predators that lack a hierarchical social structure. And yet, the furry conquerors have spread their influence all over the world. The researchers think that from the trading hub of Egypt, the felines spread along trade and migration routes both on ships and overland, to such an extent that even a Viking settlement on the Baltic coast contained the bones of an Egyptian cat.
The DNA analysis of the ancient cat remains was also able to give the researchers an insight into what their coat coloration and pattern would have been like and in turn help us to understand why or how the animals may have been domesticated in the first place.
The researchers found that the cats from ancient Egypt had a striped coat of fur, reminiscent of those depicted in paintings found in tombs, and that this coloration dominated for many thousands of years. They discovered that it was not until the Middle Ages that the tabby pattern, of blotched spots and stripes, originated in southwest Asia and spread to Europe.
This suggests that for most of the history of cat domestication, those keeping the felines were not concerned about their aesthetics, but kept them for the much more practical reason of pest control.