Cats are cherished companions in houses all around the world. But, they weren’t always sofa lovers. The house cat’s wild cousins are solitary animals that roam around Africa, Europe, and Asia. They belong to the species Felis silvestris, which has five subspecies. Only one of these was successfully tamed:
Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat. So how did this shy, unassuming carnivore win itself a place at human firesides across the world?
To find out, a group of scientists analyzed more than 200 cat remains from places like Viking graves, Egyptian mummies, and Stone Age sites. The team started by extracting DNA from the bones and teeth. This had to be done very carefully, so the samples weren’t contaminated with modern DNA floating in the air or DNA from the researchers’ skin. Comparing the cat DNA revealed that cat domestication happened in two waves... It began thousands of years ago, in the Near East, where farming started.
The first farmers stored grain from their fields; the grain attracted mice and the mice attracted wildcats.
Seeing the benefits of having cats around, farmers were probably the first people to successfully tame them.
The DNA shows that these friendly felines became intrepid travelers, turning up in Bulgaria and Romania 6,000 years ago.
But farm cats from the Near East weren’t the only ones to be tamed and to travel.
There was a second wave of cat domestication several thousand years later, in ancient Egypt. Egyptian cats seem to have been very popular.
The researchers found evidence that they spread to Europe during the Roman-era, and for several hundred years became more common than cats from the Near East. Egyptian cats spread even further during the Viking period. Rodents were also a problem on ships, and in medieval times it became compulsory for seafarers to have a cat on board. The researchers found Egyptian cat DNA in the Viking port of Ralswiek, suggesting that Egyptian cats were carried along maritime trade routes to northern Europe. For thousands of years, cats were valued mainly as pest exterminators. It wasn’t until later that people seemed to take an interest in how their cats looked. The researchers checked the DNA for a genetic marker that’s known to produce a blotched tabby pattern. This pattern is common in house cats today, but isn’t seen in wildcats; they have a mackerel-like tabby pattern. The blotched pattern first shows up in a cat in Western Turkey dated to the 14th century, at the latest. By the 19th century – when fancy breeding takes off – it had become common. These fancy-looking cats, some from the Near East, some from Egypt, are the ones we know and love today.