Genetic Analysis Reveals How Cats Conquered the Ancient World

July 9, 2017
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

Ancient DNA analysis reveals clues about how cats dispersed throughout the ancient world and became domesticated.

By studying 9000 years of feline genetics, a team of researchers has provided intriguing insight into cat domestication and how cats dispersed throughout the ancient world.

This study, the researchers wrote, “provides answers to longstanding questions concerning the domestication pro­cess of the cat and contributes to a better understanding of how humans have reshaped global biodiversity through species trans­locations.”

Modern domestic cats live on every continent except Antarctica. Now considered a companion animal, cats were often used in ancient societies for rodent and pest control. To date, little is definitively known about early cat domestication and dispersal because of a lack of archaeological cat remains.

In the current study, researchers extracted mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from samples of about 200 ancient cats and 30 modern Bulgarian and east African wildcats. Using this mtDNA, researchers constructed a phylogeographic map depicting the distribution of the 5 subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris (F.s. lybica, F.s. silvestris, F.s. ornata, F.s. cafra, F.s. bieti) across Europe, Africa, and Asia. Importantly, mtDNA analysis revealed that modern-day domestic cats originated from the subspecies F.s. lybica.

Cat Dispersal

The phylogeography indicated that F.s. lybica spread throughout southeast Europe and other parts of the ancient world. For example, F.s. lybica was predominant in Anatolia around 8000 BC, then appeared in Bulgaria and Romania in the Neolithic Period (between 4400 and 3200 BC) and in Greece during the Late Bronze/Iron Age (1200 BC). Such migration comes after the beginning of Neolithic farming practices, suggesting human-mediated cat translocation and commensalism between cats and the farmers.

F.s. lybica also spread from Egypt into Europe, starting in the Classical Antiquity period (8th century BC) and continuing into the Middle Ages. Such expansion was indicated by the presence of F.s. lybica at Viking and Iranian trading ports by the 7th and 8th centuries AD, respectively. This expansion again suggested human-mediated cat translocation—this time along trading routes, with cats being used on ships for rodent and pest control. When cats arrived in the new areas, they mixed with the local tame or wild cats, leading to increased genetic diversity.

Cat Domestication

It has long been believed that cat domestication began in ancient Egypt, as evidenced by Egyptian art from around 1500 BC depicting a close human—cat relationship. However, evidence from Cyprus suggests that domestication may have begun more than 9000 years ago. A previous study reported that a complete cat skeleton was buried with a human in Cyprus around 7500 BC, suggesting cat domestication by early Neolithic farming communities.

The current study’s phylogeographic findings support the idea of the Near East and ancient Egypt being two key areas of early cat domestication.

Because domestication did not change cat morphology markedly over time, only a few traits, such as coat pattern, can be used to trace the history of cat domestication. Researchers analyzed the Taqpep gene, which determines the tabby coat pattern. They observed that this gene’s recessive allele didn’t appear until the Middle Ages, indicating that selective breeding for desirable physical traits in cats didn’t occur until long after the beginning of their domestication.

Taken together, the study’s findings indicate the major role of humans in cat dispersal throughout the ancient world, and suggest that “cat domestication was a complex, long-term process featuring extensive translocations.” The researchers are interested in using isotopes to learn more about ancient cat eating habits and jaw morphology.

Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.