Cats have mounted a silent takeover of the world. They’re in backyards, on T-shirts and motivational posters — and let’s not even talk about the internet. Now, a new study from a team of international researchers has determined how they managed to do it: through humans.
Researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research and the University Paris Diderot wanted to figure out when and why we’ve let felines into our lives rather than keep them outside as pest control.
They studied the DNA of more than 200 cats from the past 9,000 years, including mummified Egyptian cats and ancient Romanian cats from the Mesolithic era.
They found that cats spread around the world at two times: once due to farming practices, the other as trade routes began to open. But it was the Egyptians who made cats into the domesticated gods they are today.
“At some point … cats evolved this more friendly disposition to humans, so they went from pest-control agents to pets,” Claudio Ottoni, co-author of the paper published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, told CBC News.
“Those that were more friendly were those that were more easily kept by humans.”
From mouser to companion
Thousands of years ago, as humans began to farm, wildcats likely crept into human settlements, finding it rich with food, mainly in the form of mice and other vermin.
And, as it turned out, this was highly convenient to humans, as well: these four-legged balls of fur were keeping mice out of seed stores and didn’t seem to be much bothered with humans (some might say this hasn’t changed all that much).
This mutually beneficial relationship helped to cement the cats in everyday life, the researchers said.
While all domesticated cats stem from Felis silvestris lybica from the Near East — a region that extends from Libya to Afghanistan — there are five distinct subspecies. This new research suggests that two of these subspecies led to the domesticated cat we are familiar with today: one from southwest Asia and the other with an African lineage.
The southwest Asian cat shows up 9,000 years ago in Turkey, and clearly humans did more than tolerate them. The cat appears in the Mediterranean region around 6,500 years ago, likely following migrant farmers. From there, it spread around Asia, Africa and the rest of Europe.
Then there’s the Egyptian cat. Around 5,000 years ago, Ottoni said, it was clear that this cat began to be seen as more of a companion than a pest-killer. Egyptian art depicts it sitting on sofas and around tables, clearly as part of the family (or just refusing to move). As well, Egyptians began to mummify the cats, just as they did humans.
These Egyptian cats also hitched a ride with Vikings on their expeditions and their population exploded around the world
By then, cats had already made their way into humans lives and come indoors.
“There was a sort of switch, some kind of change in the behaviour of cats, which occurred in the Egyptian cats that made them more appealing,” Ottoni said.
“This change was probably mostly in their behaviour: cats became more tolerant of humans, more friendly, and that kind of opened the doors to the domestic fireplace, in a way. And humans began to appreciate them as companions and pets … like the pet that we know today in our households.”
Researchers also decided to look at patterns on cats. Around 10,000 years ago, the lybica cats were sandy-coloured and striped. But today, we look around and see cats of various shades and patterns. This occurred as cats spread around the globe, intermingled and bred.
In a separate analysis, the researchers found that the tabby cat — with its distinctive mottled appearance — occurred during the Middle Ages.
By the 19th century, however, breeding begins to become more popular and different coat patterns emerge.
So why do we continue to love the clawed, moody furballs even as they may annoy us weaving in between our legs as we walk?
“There is an intimate relationship between humans and cats,” Ottoni said. “It’s really a sort of bond. It’s that that made cats so successful around so many places.”