In modern-day society, we value cats for their grumpiness, the way they resent everything we try to do for them, and the fact they only want our attention when we’ve finally fallen asleep.
But in ancient society, cats couldn’t rely on their charming personalities to win favour with humans, and instead had to follow a long road to becoming the domesticated fluffers we know today.
It had long been known that all modern-day cats can trace their roots to one (of five subspecies) of wild cat – the Felis Silvestris Lybica – native to northern Africa and southwest Asia. As the other four subspecies were never tamed.
And it was presumed cats had farmers to thank for welcoming into our homes, by presenting their skills as vermin-catchers and eventually winning favour.
But now the largest ever study of cat domestication and the “cat’s worldwide conquest”, has confirmed that the dispersal actually happened in two waves, not one, and for very different reasons.
The study, published in Nature Ecology, looked at the mitochondrial DNA (passed down the maternal line) in the bones and teeth of more than 200 ancient cats, found at archaeological sites across the world, including Viking graves, Egyptian tombs.
These fossils told the researchers that the first wave, which was 9,000 years ago, happened in the near East, in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ – a belt of land which stretches east from the Mediterranean sea across the north of the Syrian desert.
Here grain-farmers realised that they were attracting mice with their crops, which in turn attracted wild-cats. And instead of removing them, by tolerating their presence they were able to curb their rodent problem.
Professor Eva Maria Geigl, said: “I would say cats chose human company, but it was a commensal relationship – it was profitable to both sides.”
These cats then spread to Bulgaria and Romania on foot, and were later kept on Viking ships, as it was compulsory for all seafarers to have at least one cat on board to keep the rodent problem at bay, meaning they spread throughout Eastern Europe.
The second cat wave came several thousand years later, in Ancient Egyptian society, where cats were revered and very popular among the ruling classes.
These were also carried along maritime trade routes, throughout the Roman Empire, and as it expanded, so did the cat’s plans for global domination.
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But even these cats were still not ones we would recognise today, as the popular Tabby pattern only became more widespread later on, in the nineteenth century, when owners started to care about how their pets looked and chose selective breeding.
“There was very little breeding and selection going on in cats up the 19th Century, in contrast with dogs,” said Dr Geigl. “The cat was useful from the very beginning – it didn’t have to be changed.”
Today, cats live on all continents except Antarctica, proving they’ve done a pretty good job of taking over our lives.
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