Ancient Chinese Domesticated Leopard Cats 5,500 Years Ago

Enrico de Lazaro

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The 5,500 year old cat remains found more than a decade ago in China have been identified as the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) by an international team of scientists, led by Sorbonne University researcher Jean-Denis Vigne.

Image 3594 leopard catLeopard cat. Tambako The Jaguar / CC BY-ND 2.0.

With global numbers of more than 500 million individuals, the domestic cat (Felis catus) is amongst the most common pet in the world today.

Modern genetic data indicates that the South-West Asian and North African subspecies of wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) is the ancestor of all modern domestic cats.

In the 2000s, archaeologists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences unearthed cat bones in agricultural settlements dating from around 3500 BC in Shaanxi and Henan provinces, China.

Was this evidence of a relationship between small Chinese cats and humans in the fourth millennium BC in China? Or was it the result of the arrival in China of the first domestic cats from the Near East? There was no way of deciding between these two hypotheses without identifying the species to which the bones belonged,” Dr Vigne and his colleagues said.

Although there are no less than four different forms of small cat in China, the subspecies from which modern cats are descended — Felis silvestris lybica – has never been recorded there.”

To try to settle the question, the scientists undertook a geometric morphometric analysis, which, in the absence of ancient DNA, is the only way of differentiating the bones of such small cats, which have very similar morphologies whose differences are often imperceptible using conventional techniques.

They analyzed the mandibles of five cats from Shaanxi and Henan dating from 3500 to 2900 BC.

The mandible shape analyses demonstrate that the small felids from Middle and Late Neolithic sites in Shaanxi and Henan provinces display close phenotypic similarities with Prionailurus bengalensis and not with F. silvestris lybica or F. s. silvestris,” the researchers wrote in a paper in the journal PLoS ONE.

We can, therefore, reject the hypothesis that these small Chinese felids are commensal or early domesticated cats introduced from SW Asia between 10,800 and 5,500 years before present, where only F. s. lybica have so far been identified.”

Still very widespread in Eastern Asia today, the leopard cat is well-known for its propensity to frequent areas with a strong human presence.

Just as in the Near East and Egypt, these cats were probably attracted into Chinese settlements by the proliferation of rodents who took advantage of grain stores.

The leopard cat’s ‘domestic’ status, however, appears to have been short-lived – its apparent subsequent replacement shown by the fact that today all domestic cats in China are genetically related to F. silvestris,” the scientists concluded.

Vigne J-D et al. 2016. Earliest “Domestic” Cats in China Identified as Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). PLoS ONE 11 (1): e0147295; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0147295