Domestic cats around the world can trace their origins back to the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, according to a genetic study in Science journal. They may have been domesticated by early farming communities, experts say.
The study suggests the progenitors of today’s cats split from their wild counterparts more than 100,000 years ago – much earlier than once thought. At least five female ancestors from the region gave rise to all the domestic cats alive today, scientists believe.
DNA evidence suggests that, apart from accidental cross-breeding, European wildcats are not part of the domestic moggy’s family tree. Neither are the Central Asian wildcat, the Southern African wildcat, or the Chinese desert cat.
The earliest archaeological evidence of cat domestication dates back 9,500 years, when cats were thought to have lived alongside humans in settlement sites in Cyprus.
However, the new results show the house cat lineage is far older. Ancestors of domestic cats are now thought to have broken away from their wild relatives and started living with humans as early as 130,000 years ago.
The researchers focused on DNA in the mitochondria, the power plants of cells which supply energy and have their own genetic material. Comparison of the genetic sequences enabled researchers to determine the relationships between different cat lineages.
The scientists found the cats fell into distinctive genetic “clades”, or groups. One of the clades included domestic cats and some wildcats from the Middle East, suggesting that today’s moggy stems from the wild felines of this region.
Experts believe cats originally sought out human company, attracted by rodents infesting the first agricultural settlements. The early farmers of the fertile crescent – present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel – would have found the animals extremely useful for protecting their grain stores – an association that continues to this day.
“The felidae family is well known as a successful predator – very deadly, very ferocious, very threatening to all species including humankind,” said co-author Stephen O’Brien, of the US National Cancer Institute.
“But this little guy actually chose not to be that,” he said, “he actually chose to be a little bit friendly and also was a very good mouser.”
The study included researchers from the UK, the US, Germany, Israel, Spain and France.
BBC News web Thursday, 28 June 2007, 19:42 GMT 20:42 UK