Ian Sample, science correspondent guardian.co.uk,
The ancestry of the world’s household cats can be traced to an ancient region
The ancestry of the world’s household cats can be traced to an ancient region of the near east, suggesting an unusually exotic origin for one of the most aloof animals ever to be domesticated by humans.
A major genetic survey of nearly 1,000 feral and domestic cats has revealed that every breed of household cat alive today originates from just five lineages which lived alongside ancient settlers in the Fertile Crescent, an area stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.
The earliest archaeological evidence for cat domestication dates to 9,500 years ago, when cats were thought to have been kept as pets in parts of Cyprus. But the researchers believe domestication started 3,000 years earlier, with the family feline having broken ranks with its wild relatives as long as 130,000 years ago.
Unlike pigs, cows and sheep, which were domesticated for agriculture, and horses and donkeys, which were exploited to pull farming equipment, cats began co-existing beside humans by feeding on mice, rats and other pests that infested the grain stores of the first farmers.
A team of scientists led by David Macdonald at Oxford University’s wildlife conservation research unit analysed genetic samples from 979 cats from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and China.
The researchers focused on DNA in the cats’ mitochondria, the tiny power-generating structures found in cells that contain their own genetic material and are inherited only down the maternal line.
Searching through the genetic code sequences, the scientists looked for variations at a number of defined “marker” spots. This enabled them to determine which wild and domestic cat lineages were most closely related.
The cats fell into distinct groups, one of which included all domestic cats and the near eastern wildcat, suggesting the two were linked. The other cats fell into four groups including the European wildcat, the central Asian wildcat, the sub-Saharan African wildcat and the Chinese desert cat.
Carlos Driscoll, a scientist on the study, which was published in Science yesterday, said: “What our work shows is that cats were not domesticated anywhere else in the world, but that they became pets for people living in the Fertile Crescent before being carried to other parts of the world by humans.” The Fertile Crescent gains its name from land irrigated by the waters of the Nile, Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates, where hunter-gatherers first began to settle. Different civilisations occupied the region, including the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians.
The project, which has taken more than six years, began as an attempt to identify genetic differences between the Scottish wildcat and other native species, but expanded to encompass all species of cat around the globe. The information will help conservationists develop more effective strategies to protect rare species, including the Scottish wildcat.
“These genetic insights offer hope for the wildcat’s future,” said Professor Macdonald. “In terms of practical conservation our next move is to use this marker to find out how many wildcats are left in Scotland.”
There is no way the 130,000 years figure is right. 13,000 maybe. If the 130,000 year figure was right, they’d have been snuggling down around the hearth fires in the Levant with the first modern human population out of Africa (Skuhl) that’s generally believed to have failed.
Maybe they were.
The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication
Carlos A. Driscoll,1,2* Marilyn Menotti-Raymond,1 Alfred L. Roca,3 Karsten Hupe,4 Warren E. Johnson,1 Eli Geffen,5 Eric H. Harley,6 Miguel Delibes,7 Dominique Pontier,8 Andrew C. Kitchener,9,10 Nobuyuki Yamaguchi,2 Stephen J. O’Brien,1* David W. Macdonald2*
The world’s domestic cats carry patterns of sequence variation in their genome that reflect a history of domestication and breed development. A genetic assessment of 979 domestic cats and their wild progenitors—Felis silvestris silvestris (European wildcat), F. s. lybica (Near Eastern wildcat), F. s. ornata (central Asian wildcat), F. s. cafra (southern African wildcat), and F. s. bieti (Chinese desert cat)—indicated that each wild group represents a distinctive subspecies of Felis silvestris. Further analysis revealed that cats were domesticated in the Near East, probably coincident with agricultural village development in the Fertile Crescent. Domestic cats derive from at least five founders from across this region, whose descendants were transported across the world by human assistance.