DNA analysis from 30 archaeological sites reveals how cats spread around the world
It would be difficult to imagine the world today without the presence of cats – from internet memes to Instagram stars, they’ve just about taken over the world.
But, it wasn’t always that way.
In a new study, researchers analyzed the DNA of over 200 ancient cats, from as far back as 15,000 years ago and up to the 18th century CE, to shed light on the little-known history of cat domestication.
This revealed two distinct waves of cat population growth in Eurasia and Africa, suggesting they may have expanded with farming and seafaring communities who turned to them for rodent control.
In a new study, researchers analyzed the DNA of over 200 ancient cats, from as far back as 15,000 years ago and up to the 18th century CE, to shed light on the little-known history of cat domestication. Bronze figurines of the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet are pictured
The relationship between cats and humans is one that stretches back thousands of years – but, the origin of the house cat largely remains a mystery, and it’s still unclear if these animals are truly distinct from their wild relatives.
‘We don’t know the history of ancient cats,’ Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, told Nature.
‘We do not know their origin, we don’t know how their dispersal occurred.’
To understand more about their history, researchers examined mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 209 cats found at more than 30 archaeological sites in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
With some samples up to 15,000 years old, this provides a glimpse at life as far back as the Mesolithic, just before the onset of agriculture.
The most recent samples were from the eighteenth century.
The findings, presented at the 7th International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford on Sept 15, revealed cats may have lived among ancient farmers, mariners, and even Vikings.
WHAT THE STUDY FOUND
According to the researchers, cats may have lived among ancient farmers, mariners, and even Vikings.
In the Middle East, the researchers found wild cats of a particular mitochondrial lineage grew with early farming communities, stretching to the eastern Mediterranean.
The researchers also found a mitochondrial lineage common among Egyptian cat mummies eventually spread to reach Bulgaria, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa.
And, they found remains of this lineage at a Viking site from roughly the 8th – 11th century in northern Germany.
The team suggests ancient communities may have realized cats' ability to control rodents, and tamed them to reap the benefits.