How Wild Cats Became Domestic
For a long time, it was believed that the Egyptians tamed cats. However, in 2004, a burial site was opened in Cyprus at the age of 9,500 years BC. e., in which they found a cat with a person. A wild beast would hardly have been put in a grave. It turned out that cats lived with people long before they appeared in Egypt. The Middle East began to be considered the homeland of domestic cats and for a while, they forgot about Egypt. But not for long: in 2008, a burial was opened in the south of Egypt, in which six cats were found – a male, a female and four kittens. Although this burial was younger than the Cypriot one (about 6000 years old), it became clear that cats were known in Egypt much earlier than was thought until recently.
The ancient Egyptians had a special relationship with cats: they were revered as sacred animals; mummified like humans; depicted in sculpture and frescoes. And the very first feline “portrait” was painted by the Egyptians. It was painted in one of the tombs south of Cairo, made around 1950 BC. e., that is, almost four thousand years ago. On it, the cat stares intently at the approaching rat.
It is known that the ancestor of a domestic cat was the steppe cat Felis silvestris lybica – it still lives in the steppe, desert and partly mountainous regions of Africa, Western, Central and Central Asia, in North India, Transcaucasia and Kazakhstan. In 2007, it was possible to establish that all modern cats descended from him.
Over time, various changes have accumulated in domestic cats in the genome, and if you can trace from the ancient remains of animals how and when such changes occurred, you can accurately determine where domestic cats first appeared and how they spread around the globe.
Scientists analyzed more than two hundred DNA samples taken from the remains of cats aged 100 to 9000 years, which were found during archaeological excavations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. For analysis, we used not ordinary, nuclear, DNA, but that which is contained in mitochondria. Mitochondrial DNA is transmitted only through the maternal line, since after fertilization only those mitochondria that were in the egg are retained in the embryo. Using such DNA, it is relatively easy to restore the female lineage without being distracted by the paternal genes.
The steppe cat has its own “mitochondrial portrait” – the characteristic features in the mitochondrial DNA that distinguish it from other related species. An article published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution reports that for the first time, domestic cats, most similar to the mitochondrial genome to a steppe cat, appear 9,000 years ago in burials excavated in modern Turkey. And this is quite consistent with the “Middle East” hypothesis: it was in these places, about 10,000 years ago, that wild cats found that rodents are abundant near food stocks made by humans and that it is, therefore, better to be friends with people.
The mitochondrial portrait of such cats was called “type A”. Around 4400 BC e. Cats of this type appear in the territory of modern Bulgaria, 3200 years BC. e. – where Romania is now, and then they spread throughout the rest of Europe, Asia and Africa. Since cats are territorial in nature and are not inclined to long trips, animals, apparently, could quickly settle on all continents only with the help of people.
But back to Egypt. It turned out that in Egyptian feline mummies, mitochondrial DNA is different from the DNA of “type A” cats. The “Egyptians” were designated “type C,” and the first of them date back to about 800 BC. e. Probably, cats of “type C” appeared in Egypt before, but it was not possible to extract the amount of DNA necessary for analysis from older burials.
Over time, Egyptian cats became very popular: by the fifth century AD, they could be found throughout Europe and throughout the Mediterranean, and by the end of the first millennium in some places they completely crowded out Middle Eastern type cats. The popularity of “type C” cats can be explained by the notorious special attitude of the Egyptians towards these animals: cats in Egypt became more and more, and here, most importantly, not only good hunters but also pleasant “cohabitants” who got rid of the wild inanimate.
The changes that were taking place gradually in Egyptian cats can be seen in Egyptian art: at first, the animals were depicted for some useful activity, like catching rats, but then the cats on the paintings more and more “domesticate” and become closer to people – they already catch with the owners’ birds, they have collars, they sit under a chair while people are busy with lunch, as on one of the frescoes dating to about 1500 BC. e.
All modern cats are a mixture of “Type A” and “Type C”. And even if the Egyptians themselves did not domesticate anyone, it was they who made cats universal favorites, teaching them communication and affection. It is curious that the genes that control color in domestic cats for a very long time remained unchanged, and only about the XIV century BC. e. animals appear in which the “wild” striped color “spreads” into various spots and “blots”. If we take dogs or horses for comparison, then they “changed into their home” rather early, but probably no one cared about the appearance of cats – the main thing is to learn how to behave in the house.
In 2001, during excavations in Central China, in a place where there was once a farm of prehistoric farmers, several cat bones were found aged 5300 years. An analysis of the remains showed that they were domestic cats: they ate some animals, which, in turn, ate cereals (that is, obviously, cats hunted small rodents), and people obviously took care of them (some of the bones belonged to a rather old a beast who, most likely, would not have survived to such an age without human help). The question arose of where these animals came from: did they come with Middle Eastern traders or were they domesticated right here?
Researchers from the Sorbonne and Aberdeen University, along with Chinese colleagues, concluded that all the prehistoric cat bones that were found in China belong to a Bengal cat – Prionailurus bengalensis.
In an article published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, the authors make several arguments in favor of the fact that they were not just wild animals that roamed near a human settlement, namely cats that were in the early stages of taming. Let us list these arguments: some of the remains belonged to cats that were slightly smaller than wild individuals (that is, the process of domestication was already taking place), and one of the cats was buried entirely, which indicates a special relationship between the animal and man.
However, the “experiment” on taming a Bengal cat ended in nothing: over time, descendants of the steppe cat appeared in China for a long time, who were more obedient, more useful in the household and knew better what people wanted from them, and people themselves understood about what their cat meows.