Watch the History of Cat Domestication in Three Minutes

New research finds that cats were independently tamed in the Near East and Egypt
June 19, 2017, 3:07pm
Image: Saving Private Ryan/flickr

Cats have become the unofficial ambassadors of the internet, what with their unrivaled viral star power. A whole industry of internet-famous cats has emerged to accommodate the charisma of Lil BUB, Grumpy Cat, Maru, and this Ewok-looking weirdo who cannot resist the call of destruction.

According to new research published Monday in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the human zeal for cats has deep roots that reach back to separate points of domestication in the ancient world. Led by evolutionary biologist Claudio Ottoni of the University of Leuven in Belgium, an international team of authors sequenced a massive dataset of 209 feline genomes representing a span of 9,000 years. Samples were extracted from the remains of Viking ship cats, Egyptian cat mummies, and modern wildcats, among others.


The results of the analysis, which is one of the first large-scale genetic studies into cats, are summarized in this video that was posted Monday.

According to the researchers, the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), the ancestor of modern house-cats, was gradually tamed in two waves. The first event began in tandem with the advent of mass agriculture in the Near East around 9,000 years ago, where wildcats made themselves useful to farmers by killing rodent pests. Once domesticated, this lineage of cats, called IV-A, gradually migrated north where they founded feline lineages in central Eurasia.

The second wave of cat domestication, perhaps more famous, sprang up a few thousands years later in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians clearly shared our modern appreciation for cat antics, because they established feline worship cults, integrated cats into artwork and culture, and mummified cat remains to preserve them for posterity. During classical antiquity, this Egyptian lineage of cats, called IV-C, were dispersed widely around Europe, in part because they often worked as mousers on boats, including Viking warships.

Ottoni and his colleagues found that the common tabby pattern of thick stripes did not develop in cats until the Middle Ages. Around the 14th century, cat breeders began to shift gears, capitalizing on a demand for cats as adorable companions, in addition to their penchant for pest control.

Read More: Cats Are Actually Nice, Scientists Find

Though the new paper traces domestic feline ancestry back to two major hubs of cat domestication, it's clear that there was plenty of crossbreeding and hybridization between the IV-A and IV-C lineages along the way. This mirrors recent findings about dog domestication, which occurred several thousands of years earlier than the taming of cats, but also appears to have happened in two major waves.

Perhaps this rich heritage of early farming, maritime adventuring, and totemic worship will make you look at your cat differently as you stare into its vacant gaze. Though our partnership with dogs has deeper roots, the DGAF bravado of cats remains as endearing as ever.

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