New discovery helps unravel the early days of cat domestication

iStock_000014878060Small_blogFrom ancient companions to the darlings of the internet, cats have had a close relationship with humanity for a long time.

Now a discovery in China points to how the relationship got started. Archaeologists studying a site in China have found evidence of partially-domesticated cats living with humans roughly 5,300 years ago. The cats were thought to have served as mousers that hunted rodents chowing down on grain harvests, the Los Angeles Times reports. The findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Prior to the findings, the earliest domestic cats were known only from Egyptian art dating back 4,000 years (the study’s abstract notes that a wildcat buried near a human on Cyprus about 9,500 years ago could be evidence of an earlier relationship). The scientist also found the cats, along with their human counterparts in the village of Quanhucun, consumed a large portion of millet, as did the rodents present at the site. This may indicate that either the cat “scavenged or was fed by people”, according to the study’s abstract.

“Our data suggest that cats were attracted to ancient farming villages by small animals, such as rodents that were living on the grain that the farmers grew, ate and stored,” said study coauthor and Washington University zooarchaelogist Fiona Marshall in a statement. “Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats. Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits.”

The findings came as a surprise, Marshall told the LA Times, since today’s domestic cats are descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat – Felis silvestris lybica. However, Quanhucun is well outside of the wildcats’ range, prompting them to explore how the cats got there.  They’re hoping DNA tests will help solve the puzzle.

The findings come from eight bones from two cats discovered at the site and analyzed by Yaowu Hu and collaborators at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Radiocarbon dating and analysis of nitrogen and carbon levels in the cats’ bones along with those of other animals at the site showed the cats preyed on animals that consumed millet, such as the rats. Other archaeological evidence at the site, such as rodent-proof grain storage containers, suggest that rodent consumption of grain was an issue.

Read the full study from PNAS here.

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