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Ancient Chinese Bones Help Explain Why Cats Like Us

Bone fragments illuminate an early era of cat domestication.
Why do cats, as aloof as they are, like humans? New evidence from China will help answer the question. Image via Wikimedia Commons

While the debate about how dogs were first domesticated has seemingly no end in sight, what of the dog’s internet-famous arch nemesis, the cat? With their naturally detached attitude and endlessly cool demeanor, it boggles the mind how we humans ever managed to tame, however meagerly, the cat’s wildest instincts. Nevertheless, it happened, and new evidence presented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides a glimpse at how.

Domestication is a process that can occur through a number of pathways. There is the prey pathway, through which prey population management led to animal husbandry. Then there is the directed pathway, which “begins when humans use knowledge gained from the management of already domesticated animals to domesticate a wild species that possesses a resource or a certain set of resources.”

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Think about the cats you know: headstrong, aloof, carnivorous. Neither the prey nor directed pathway would have suited creatures of this temperament. Rather, evidence suggests our feline pals underwent the process of commensal domestication, a mutualistic process whereby cats became attracted to human settlements for particular resources, namely food. Eventually, the two species found themselves entwined in a bond that has inevitably led to today’s housecats.

A few of the bones recovered in China. From the paper: "(A) Left mandible with worn fourth premolar and first molar; (B) right humerus; (C) left pelvis; (D) proximal left tibia."

In the PNAS report, researchers discuss their discovery of eight bone fragments belonging to at least two early cats, if not more, at the village of Quanhucun in China. Carbon dating traced these fragments back to a 200 year span approximately 5,300 years ago. That places these bones between two other important dates: 9,500 years ago, when a wildcat was buried with a human, indicating early human-cat relationships; and 4,000 years ago, when ancient Egyptians created art depicting their beloved domesticated cats.

Further testing via isotope analysis revealed what the Quanhucun cats, as well as their human and rodent neighbors, ate. Millets were the main source of food for villagers, results which the researchers say “fit into the larger context of developed millet agriculture in North China.” The millet attracted rodents, who then attracted cats. “Nitrogen isotopes indicated that [the cats] ate meat, but… at least one individual consumed a significant amount of grain,” write the paper authors.

The mixed dietary habits of the Quanhucun cats point cats being hunters and scavengers, but also maybe pets. Humans appreciated their company because they kept the rodent problem in check, while cats enjoyed living near the human settlement because there was always food, either in the form or rats or millet-based leftovers. “Mutualistic domesticatory relationships between people and cats ultimately resulted in population expansion and humanly facilitated dispersal of cats across the world,” states the paper.

Despite this discovery, it seems like a large chunk of the cat domestication process remains a mystery. But this glimpse back into history gives us the earliest evidence thus far for commensal domestication, allowing us to see how yesterday’s free-roaming felines became today’s YouTube celebrity housecats.

@heyiamlex