Ancient DNA Reveals the Origin of Domestic Cats

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A cat skeleton in a 6,000-year-old pit in Hierakonpolis, Egypt. (PHOTO: Hierakonpolis Expedition)

Five subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris are known today. All skeletons look exactly alike and are identical to that of our domestic cat. As a result, it’s impossible to see with the naked eye which of these subspecies was domesticated in a distant past.

Paleogeneticist Claudio Ottoni and his colleagues from the University of Leuven and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences set out to look for the answers in cats’ genetic code. They used the DNA from bones, teeth, skin, and hair of over 200 cats found at archaeological sites in the Near East, Africa, and Europe. These remains were all between 100 and 9,000 years old.

The DNA analysis revealed that all domesticated cats descend from the African wildcat or Felis silvestris lybica, a wildcat subspecies found in North Africa and the Near East.

The skull of Felis silvestris lybica, or the African wildcat. (PHOTO: NATURAL SELECTIONS)

The scientists were also able to determine the coat pattern based on the DNA of the old cat bones and mummies. The DNA analysis revealed that most of these ancient cats had stripes. This is also illustrated by Egyptian murals. Spotted cats were not common until the Middle Ages.

Cats were domesticated by the first farmers around 10,000 years ago. Wildcats were attracted to the farming settlements by rodents, and farmers welcomed the cats keeping their stock free of vermin. Over time, man and wildcat grew closer, and selection based on behavior eventually led to domestication.

They later spread to other parts of the world through trade routes with Egypt. Used to fight vermin on Egyptian trade ships, the cats traveled to large parts of South West Asia, Africa, and Europe.

“It’s still unclear, however, whether the Egyptian domestic cat descends from cats imported from the Near East or whether a separate, second domestication took place in Egypt,” researcher Claudio Ottoni tells Science Daily. “Further research will have to show.”

Egyptian mural depicting a striped cat. (PHOTO: ULIANKA)

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