A new study of ancient DNA presented at the 7th International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology has revealed the secret story of cats’ spread across the globe.
Cats are mysterious creatures. They’re independent yet social, aloof yet endearing, and very good at getting what they want. Like any organism, the very first cats originated in one place, then spread. They spread, and spread, and continue to spread, becoming beloved pets and conservationists’ worst nightmare, often at the same time.
Exactly how they managed this feat of feline world domination has remained something of a puzzle. How did these small, terrestrial animals make it across the oceans? Cats have no value as livestock (like cows) or transport (like horses). They’re good workers as mousers, but only when they want to be. And we talk about the "domestic" cat, but some scientists think that may be a misnomer—maybe we haven’t really domesticated them at all.
But they may have domesticated us. Look back 12,000 years in time to the Fertile Crescent at the dawn of agriculture, when cats were buried along with people. Look to the millions of sacred cats mummified in ancient Egypt. Every time we find the carefully entombed remains of a cat, we find a clue to how they got to be who (and where) they are today.
Researchers lead by Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, sequenced DNA taken from the remains of 209 cats found at more than 30 archaeological digs across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. They focused exclusively on mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited maternally. The samples represented an enormous swath of history, from our days as hunter-gatherers up through the 18th century.
The cats’ DNA painted a picture of two distinct bursts of kitty scattering (s-cat-tering, if you will). The first was in the Middle East, where farming began about 10,000 years ago. As farming communities grew out toward the Mediterranean Sea, the cats came with them. The study authors say the farms’ piles of grain likely attracted rodents, which then brought out the wild cats. And once farmers saw the value of having fierce mousers around, they likely tried to find a way to keep them.
Fast-forward several millennia to the second wave, when noble Egyptian cats began to sow their wild oats throughout Eurasia and Africa. A family line found in Egyptian mummy cats from the end of the fourth century BCE to the fourth century CE was also found in cats from Bulgaria, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa during roughly the same time.
Then they hit up the Vikings. Seafaring life is a tangle of dangers and threats, including the voracious mouths of rats and mice in a hold full of essential provisions. By around the 8th century, Vikings, too, had seen the value of keeping cats around, as evidenced by feline remains found in Viking settlements.
And still they spread. Cats are something of a contentious topic these days. The hunting skills that made them so attractive to our distant ancestors can today make them a serious threat to wildlife. Some places have banned cats altogether, although it might already be too late—they've already got us thoroughly wrapped around their little paws.
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