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How cats became domestic

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Science Says: DNA shows early spread of cats in human world

"While the cat's worldwide conquest began during the Neolithic period in the Near East, its dispersal gained momentum during the Classical period, when the Egyptian cat successfully spread throughout the Old World", they said. "We mapped what we knew about the age and location of our ancient cats onto these signatures to figure out how the earliest cats spread out over time", says University of Oslo postdoc Claudio Ottoni, who carried out the genetic analysis in the new study.

He gathered hundreds of cat specimens-bones, teeth, and mummies from across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East dating from about 7000 B.C.E.to the 19th century C.E. Then, he teamed up with more than two dozen researchers who drilled into the remains for mitochondrial DNA, genetic material inherited exclusively from the mother and found in the cell's energy-generating machinery. They used the DNA from bones, teeth, skin, and hair of over 200 cats found at archaeological sites in the Near East, Africa, and Europe.

One thing that remains to be uncovered is if the Egyptians' domesticated cats on their own or used the animals that other people began to domesticate in the neighboring region of the Near East.

One answer comes from a paper published today in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The researchers believe the Egyptians started breeding cats, and as they bred more and more, they probably selected the ones that were easiest to have around, that were more social and less territorial than their ancestors.

"There is one single point mutation that changes the pattern of the cat's fur from a tiger-like stripes to the tabby pattern", said Geigl. With its long front legs, upright tail, and triangular head staring down an approaching field rat, it is unmistakably a domestic cat-the first appearance in the art of ancient Egypt.

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That indicates cats had been taken there by boat with the first farmers colonizing Europe, Geigl said. Today, cats still share our homes and food, and for thousands of years they have worked alongside farmers and sailors to eradicate vermin. Cats were mummified and formally mourned by their owners, who shaved their eyebrows off when their kitties died.

When you consider the sheer number of domestic cats prowling living rooms, back yards, and barns around the world - estimated to be in the hundreds of millions - it's pretty wild to think that scientists still aren't completely positive how they came to be, or exactly where they came from.

The DNA evidence showed this lineage of cat spread to Bulgaria and Romania within 3,000 years. Still, Egyptian cats continued to "spread to most of the Old World". Humans have been intermittently guiding cat breeding for less than 1,000 years. "They turbocharged the tameness process".

"There were two taming events - one in the Near East at the beginning and one in Egypt much later", said lead researcher Eva-Maria Geigl. Regardless, it's likely that today's domestic cats are primarily a blend of ancient Egyptian and Turkish felines, which have distinct genetic profiles.

Ottoni added that cats have "definitely already conquered humans' collective consciousness", achieving a stable place both in our homes and on the internet. The researchers note that the world's obsession with Egyptian cats was so intense that it became a political issue, and a "local ban on cat trading [was] imposed in Egypt as early as 1700 BCE". But other domestic animals, like dogs and goats, have been under our control for many millennia. More cat graves then start to appear among ancient Egyptian finds (although there is also evidence for tame cats in Stone Age China).

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