Ever wonder how cats went from wild, solitary beasts to perfect little furballs snuggling on our laps? An international team of researchers certainly did, and they looked to ancient DNA to figure it out.
Scientists have always known how the general process of domestication happened. Farmers with rat problems in their crops found that having cats around helped them keep more of their food. In return for their vermin-killing skills, the cats were rewarded by the farmers with food and a place to sleep. But up until recently, scientists weren’t exactly sure where or when this all occurred. Until now.
They studied the bones and teeth of over 200 ancient cats and determined that “the cat’s worldwide conquest” came in essentially two waves. The first was about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. As the farmers migrated into Europe over the next 3,000 years, the cats followed. This suggests that the cats were brought along intentionally to serve a purpose.
Several thousand years later, the second wave emerged in Egypt. DNA from an Egyptian lineage of cats was found all over Africa and Europe, spreading all the way up to the Baltic Sea and northern Germany. Cat remains at a Viking trading port suggested that the cats weren’t just useful on farms, they were useful on boats, too.
“When we look at the pattern that we have, this tells us the story of human mobility — war paths, trading paths, and mostly seafaring paths,” said Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist from Paris. “This must have been a cat that was at the time very attractive to people, because it spread very efficiently.”
So while many of us enjoy docile little kittys in our own homes, it certainly wasn’t always that way. Cats have traveled across the globe over thousands of years, conquering the mice populations everywhere from barns to boats. They’ve come a long way from wild cat to house cat, and many of us are sure glad they did.
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