Cats conquered the (ancient) world long before they conquered the internet, reports a paper published this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution. The DNA analysis of over 200 cats spanning the last 9,000 years, from Mesolithic Romania through to twentieth-century Angola, reveals the spread of cats from the Neolithic onwards, the contribution of Near Eastern and Egyptian populations to the domestic cat gene pool, and the origins of the tabby cat in the Middle Ages.
Cats were domesticated relatively late in comparison to dogs, living alongside humans for thousands of years prior to the onset of domestication, most likely in a mutually beneficial relationship by preying on agricultural pests. Eva-Maria Geigl and colleagues compiled and sequenced DNA from archaeological and historical cat remains, including Egyptian cat mummies and modern African wildcat specimens.
They find that two major lineages of cat contributed to today’s domestic cat. One, IV-A, first appeared in southwest Asia, and then spread into Europe as early as 4400 BC. By contrast, a lineage of African cats called IV-C dominated Egypt, and constitutes the majority of Egyptian cat mummies. The authors find that lineage IV-C then spread throughout the Mediterranean along trade routes (facilitated, perhaps, by the desirability of cats on ships to keep rodents under control) in the first millennium BC. Having arrived in these locations, introduced cats mingled with local tame or wild cats, leading to hybridization. The authors note that, surprisingly, it is only in the Middle Ages that the recessive gene mutation associated with tabby cat markings (distinctive blotched stripes) appears: first in southwest Asia, then spreading throughout Europe and Africa. This, the authors conclude, suggests that the earliest cat domestication may have focused on behavioural traits, rather than aesthetic ones.