Study Traces Cat’s Ancestry to Middle East

NYT has this story, documenting the unstoppable rise and rise of the domesticated cat, whose only serious rival is the domesticated dog; both these creatures have become part and parcel of the human domestic experience over the last 10 to 15 millennia, although the reasons for their respective acceptance into the welcoming arms of mankind were quite different. Here’s a look at how one theory envisages the first encounters between cat and human…

Some 10,000 years ago, somewhere in the Near East, an audacious wildcat crept into one of the crude villages of early human settlers, the first to domesticate wheat and barley. There she felt safe from her many predators in the region, such as hyenas and larger cats.

The rodents that infested the settlers’ homes and granaries were sufficient prey. Seeing that she was earning her keep, the settlers tolerated her, and their children greeted her kittens with delight.

At least five females of the wildcat subspecies known as Felis silvestris lybica accomplished this delicate transition from forest to village. And from these five matriarchs all the world’s 600 million house cats are descended.

By studying the mitochondrial DNA of various wildcats, house-cats and ‘fancy cats’, Carlos Driscoll and colleagues from the National Cancer Institute, spent six years travelling to various parts of the world in order to track down the closest relatives of today’s house cat community.

Five subspecies of wildcat are distributed across the Old World. They are known as the European wildcat, the Near Eastern wildcat, the Southern African wildcat, the Central Asian wildcat and the Chinese desert cat. Their patterns of DNA fall into five clusters. The DNA of all house cats and fancy cats falls within the Near Eastern wildcat cluster, making clear that this subspecies is their ancestor…

So it would appear that the domestication of crops coincided with the domestication of cats, at around 10,000 bp, only 4 or 5 millennia after dogs are believed to have been domesticated, though the domestication of the dog was probably an altogether different affair from the feline equivalent.

In the case of dogs, it would appear that mankind adopted them whilst still essentially a hunter-gatherer, around 15,000 bp, although a report earlier last month contended that the speciation event may have begun as long ago as 100,000 bp. Dogs were likely trained by humans to help with prey hunting and gathering, as well as the finer points of barking like crazy whenever a stranger or perceived enemy approached. But the researchers in the linked story believe that cats may have domesticated themselves – no mean feat, but nothing in comparison to the way in which 20th century cats are rumoured by TV advertisers to be not only capable of communicating directly with humans, but in doing so are clearly able to state that their community as a whole has an 8 out of 10 preference for this or that tinned cat-food. (TJ)

see also: Dig Discovery Is Oldest ‘Pet Cat’

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