DNA Shows Early Spread of Cats in Human World

DNA Shows Early Spread of Cats in Human World

DNA Shows Early Spread of Cats in Human World

"While the cat's worldwide conquest began during the Neolithic period in the Near East, its dispersal gained momentum during the Classical period, when the Egyptian cat successfully spread throughout the Old World", they said.

Van Neer gathered hundreds of cat specimens, including bones, teeth, and mummies from areas in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, dating from 7000 B.C.E to the 19 century C.E. He then assembled a team with more than two dozen researchers who drilled into the remains to search for mitochondrial DNA, genetic material inherited from the mother. The analysis shows how domesticated cats spread from Asia and northern Africa 9,000 years ago, to end up presiding in homes in all corners of the globe. In a second wave of migration - perhaps by ship - Egyptian cats quickly colonized Europe and the Middle East about 1,500 years ago. It showed up more often in samples from after the year 1300 than earlier ones, which fits with other evidence that the tabby cat markings became common by the 1700s and that people started breeding cats for their appearance in the 1800s.

While this study does shed some light on the origins of domestic cats, the researchers involved are still puzzled as to where the original Egyptian cats came from. A genetic analysis of more than 200 ancient cats suggests that, even if the animals were domesticated outside Egypt, it was the Egyptians who turned them into the lovable fur balls we know today.

Domestic cats are descended from Felis silvestris lybica, the near eastern and north African wildcat, and are now found on all continents, except Antarctica, and in the most remote regions of the world. Possibly the first human-created cat breed was the "blotched tabby", a cat whose tabby stripes create whorls or spots.

When were cats first domesticated?

Cats from this lineage were among those that first became idolised by the Ancient Egyptian cultures. It also appeared more than 5,000 years ago in Romania, as well as around 3,000 years ago in Greece. Today, cats still share our homes and food, and for thousands of years they have worked alongside farmers and sailors to eradicate vermin. Farmers were probably the first people to tame wild cats and then take them on their travels, either accidently or deliberately. One lineage was rooted in the Fertile Crescent, where humans who were still figuring out agriculture more than 10,000 years ago probably realized that some local wild cats were friendly and useful, Geigl said. That pattern was already known to be caused by one gene mutation, so Geigl and her colleagues looked for it in the ancient feline DNA.

The study "strengthens and refines previous work", said Carlos Driscoll of the Wildlife Institute of India. That ability may have extended to breeding cats. From Egypt, the felines rapidly expanded across the rest of Africa and Eurasia. "They turbocharged the tameness process".

"I think that there was no need to subject cats to such a selection process since it was not necessary to change them", said Eva-Maria Geigle, coauthor and evolutionary geneticist. Regardless, it's likely that today's domestic cats are primarily a blend of ancient Egyptian and Turkish felines, which have distinct genetic profiles. The Egyptians worshipped a half-woman, half-cat goddess named Bastet.

This is in contrast to dogs, the first animals to be domesticated, Geigl adds. "And this paper gives clues to how that happened".

Egyptian cats spread further with the help of Vikings, as shown by cat DNA from the 7th century found in the Viking port in Ralswiek on the Baltic Sea.

Previously, researchers had sequenced the DNA of a couple of mummified cats from ancient Egypt, where the animals used to be treated like royalty and millions of such mummies abound.