The secret history of cats

cat 300x183 The secret history of cats

(Getty Images)

John Bradshaw, Visiting Fellow at the University of Bristol and author of “Cat Sense: the feline enigma revealed” (Allen Lane)

Until recently, everyone agreed that domestic cats first appeared in ancient Egypt, about five thousand years ago. Then in 2007, a comparison of their DNA with that of wild cats from Europe, Asia and Africa indicated that domestication probably began much earlier, perhaps ten thousand years ago, when agriculture was just beginning. Fired pottery had not yet been invented, and the local rodents must have found the primitive clay vessels and pits used to store harvested grains and nuts easy to raid. Indeed the first appearance of the now-ubiquitous house mouse can be traced back to roughly the same period.

It cannot have been long before such concentrations of small rodents attracted the attentions of predators, and it seems that local wildcats were the most successful of these, losing some of their instinctive shyness so that they could go about their business cheek-by-jowl with mankind (while avoiding being turned into fur coats).

Some of their descendants gave up the wild entirely, to become the ancestors of today’s fireside moggies. It is still not entirely clear where this happened, but the DNA of today’s pet cats is much more similar to that of wild cats in the Middle East than to that of similar cats in Europe, southern Africa or central Asia – and this is compatible with the idea that Egypt was home to the earliest truly pet cats.

Now, archaeological evidence has emerged that supports a gradual transition from wild predator to household companion – but from an entirely unexpected part of the world, China. A recent excavation of a five thousand year-old village in Shaanxi has unearthed the bones of cats that seem to have been preying on rodents (bamboo rats) that were living in the village and raiding the villagers’ crops and food stores. To demonstrate this, the scientists were able to rely on a quirk of biochemistry that distinguished animals that had been eating mainly wild plants from those that had been getting their nutrition, either directly or indirectly, from the main cultivated crop (millet).

The domestic pigs, dogs – and the bamboo rat – were unmistakably deriving most of their nourishment from millet, whereas the remains of wild deer killed for meat were not. The cats’ biochemistry showed that they must have been preying on both the wild animals and the pests of the millet (wild cats don’t normally eat cereals directly – even today, cereal-based dry cat foods have to be made to taste meaty before most cats will touch them).  They were therefore probably opportunists, living outside the village but visiting regularly to keep the numbers of rats down.

Intriguing though these findings are, they cannot offer much more than a footnote to the history of the domestic cat. The cats whose bones were found in China cannot have been the direct ancestors of today’s pets, which show no trace in their DNA of either of the two kinds of Chinese wildcat (known to science as Felis ornata and Felis bieti).

Indeed, it is still not clear whether the bones recovered came from one of these species, or from another local species, the Asian leopard cat. If they do turn out to be from the latter, their discovery will provide a serendipitous precedent for modern cat breeding: the Bengal cat is a cross between domestic cats and the Asian leopard cat, albeit one that originated in the USA in the 1960s rather than ancient China.

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