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Why Cats Are All Over the Internet (and our Hearts!)

S u m m a r y :
Investigating why cats have conquered the Internet, our living rooms, and our hearts took a team of researchers to the Near East, and to (of course) Egypt, right into ancient cat DNA. The new study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Where it all began: Near East & Egypt

Upon studying ancient cat DNA obtained from archaeological sites, researchers from KU Leuven (University of Leuven) and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences found that it all began in the Near East, and ancient Egypt where cat domestication was initiated.

Looking into ancient cat DNA

Led by paleogeneticist Claudio Ottoni, the team wanted to know which of the five known subspecies of wildcat Felis silvestris were domesticated in the ancient world—merely looking at the skeletons and studying them wouldn’t give any clue, as they all look the same, and they resemble that of our domestic cat. This is why Ottoni wanted to examine DNA to find the answer. They, therefore, excavated archaeological sites in the Near East, Africa, and Europe, and found more than 200 buried cat remains dating back between 100 and 9,000 years ago. From this, DNA from the bones, teeth, skin, and hair was collected.

Buried cats in a 6,000-year-old pit in Hierakonpolis, Egypt, uncovered for the new study (© Hierakonpolis Expedition).

Thank you to the first farmers!

The DNA analysis proved to be fruitful: it showed that all domesticated cats came from African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, a subspecies common in North Africa and the Near East. How did this happen? It is estimated that cat domestication began around 10,000 years ago—thank the first farmers for that! Their settlements might have attracted wildcats, perhaps because of the presence of rodents. Then, apparently, the farmers fell in love with the wildcats (as you do), specially because the latter would preserve cereal grain stocks from harmful animals. Eventually, the bond between man and cat strengthened, leading to behaviour-based selection that would have paved the way for wildcat domestication. So, when the farmers migrated to other places of the Earth, they took their domesticated cats with them.

African Wild Cat (Felis silvestris lybica). Photo credits: Sonelle/ Johannesburg Zoo, South Africa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Migration of cats through Egyptian trade

Cats moved to other regions of the planet through trade connections from Egypt; onboard Egyptian trade ships, they would get rid of vermin, ultimately resulting in cats travelling to South West Asia, Africa, and Europe. Additionally, the new findings show cat bones of Egyptian origin on Viking sites near the Baltic Sea.

Where did domesticated cats of Egypt come from?

However, it is still not known whether a second domestication occurred in Egypt, or if the Egyptian domestic cats came from those imported from the Near East, comments Ottoni. Answering this question would require further research.

Most ancient cats had stripes

Another interesting finding from the DNA analysis of the cat bones and mummies shows that the majority of the ancient cats would bear stripes. This is why ancient Egyptian walls had so many striped cats on them.

As for spotted cats, they only became common at around the Middle Ages.

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