Sabertooths to tabbies: How did cats become domesticated?
Thousands of years before Grumpy Cat® and cute kitten memes hit social media and even ahead of Ancient Egyptian cat worship, the species became domesticated. But while cats and dogs are the most popular pets in modern times, the domestication of felines happened on a different timeline and in a different way from canines.
Artifacts indicate cats were domesticated in Cyprus some 9,500 years and genetic research points to domesticated cats dating back even further, almost 12,000 years ago. But unlike dogs, a 2017 study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution indicates cats have changed very little since domestication. Using extensive genetic analysis, the researchers also found that (similar to their habit of lingering at open doors today), cats co-existed with humans for thousands of years before taking the leap to develop a relationship, essentially domesticating themselves.
When big cats roamed the earth
Domestic cats of every breed all descended from wildcats. An international team led by University of Leuven geneticist Claudio Ottoni based their assessment of feline domestication on mitochondrial DNA analysis of 200-plus cats over the past 9,000 years. Subjects included Egyptian cat mummies and modern African wildcats.
Just like modern kitties indecisive about whether to go out the kitchen door, research showed that cat forebears lived side by side with humans for several thousand years before essentially choosing to domesticate themselves. The analysis also indicated domestic felines of today can be traced to two distinct cat lineages. Cats probably began hanging out with humans in the Fertile Crescent 8,000 years ago, drawn by farming communities. Their first benefit to people likely revolved around rodent control. Later, humans may have brought cats along migration trails with them to keep the grain supplies safe from pestilence, though it’s unclear how they rewarded these feline predators.
From this distinct and fairly limited area of origin, five distinct clades of ancient wildcats spread outward, according to the study. But the clade from Egypt and Southwest Asia had the farthest reach, following the spread of agriculture to other countries. The researchers also noticed jumps in cat domestication trails, finally theorizing that they were spreading via ship during classical antiquity. As cats will, some of them apparently escaped into port towns far from their established domestication hubs and new colonies of domestic cats began.
The telltale tabby markings
During the whole feline timeline studied, cat genes pretty much stayed the same. Modern domestic cats still share 95. 6 percent of the same DNA with tigers, for example, along with very similar skeletons. This barely altered genetic makeup may be one reason even domesticated cats tend to be aloof, similar to the solitary wildcats they descended from.
The most notable difference in modern cats and their forebears is the famed tabby cat markings. The gene responsible for these distinctive stripes and blotches weren’t found in cat remains earlier than the Middle Ages. Researchers theorized that the markings were a preference for early cat breeders.
How cats and dogs took different paths to domestication
Humans simply have not affected cat domestication the same way they have with dogs, which were the first animals domesticated. Not only have dogs undergone dramatic genetic changes in the 30,000 years since they first approached human fires, but they have also impacted the history of homo sapiens from hunter-gatherer times.
Dog bodies, facial features and temperaments have radically altered during their association with the human race. They have substantially different genetics from their wild progenitors. In contrast, 9,000 years later cats aren’t subservient in any way, nor do they assume roles like protection, providing food or even predictable companionship. Some experts predict that once cats have been domesticated as long as dogs, we’ll see more alterations. Or, cats may continue as their barely domesticated selves.