Cat domestication tracked by first large-scale ancient DNA study

A study of sequenced DNA from remains of cats dated from 13000 BC to 18th century AD reveals how cats spread throughout ancient Eurasia and Africa.

Ancient Egyptian cat mummy from the collection of Natural History Museum in London (by Nature)
Ancient Egyptian cat mummy from the collection of Natural History Museum in London (by Nature)

Previously not much research was done on house cats’ domestication resulting in a lack of knowledge concerning their origin and how their dispersal occurred. The new study, presented by evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, Eva-Maria Geigl and Claudio Ottoni and Thierry Grange sheds new light on the issue. The research involved study of mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 209 cats from more than 30 archaeological sites across Europe, the Near East and Africa, dated from the Mesolithic up to 18th century.

It seems that cat populations grew in two waves. First, Near Eastern wild cats expanded with early farming communities to the eastern Mediterranean. Thousands of years later cats descended from those in Egypt spread rapidly around Eurasia and Africa. It is testified by the mitochondrial lineage of 4th cent. BC – 4rt cent. AD Egyptian cat mummies which is also carried by cats in Bulgaria, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time. Same genetic material was carried by cats found at a Viking site dating to between the 8th and 11th century AD in northern Germany. It is believed that the early farming communities attracted rodents, which in turn drew wild cats, while later the sea-faring people probably kept cats to keep rodents in check. It was also found out that the mutation resulting in giving tabby cats blotched coats did not appear until the Medieval period.

(after Nature)

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