How Did Cats Become Domesticated?

January 13, 2014

By Linda Cole

Scientists are still debating where in the world wolves were first domesticated. Some believe it happened in the Middle East, while others say Eastern Asia. It’s even been suggested that the Americas could have been one region of domestication. So far, the exact area (or areas) where dogs became “man’s best friend” remains elusive.

The origin of cats, however, is known. A study done five years ago traced cats back to where they were first domesticated. Based on DNA evidence, the Fertile Crescent is the most likely birthplace of felines. Researchers have even been able to trace feline DNA back to the wildcat that started the process of domestication.

The Fertile Crescent is an area in the Middle East that spreads out from Turkey to northern Africa and east to Iraq and Iran. The ancestor of modern day cats began their domestication when humans gave up their nomadic life and settled down to raise crops and livestock. DNA mapping of the feline genome traces cats back to a single wild maternal ancestor, the Near Eastern wildcat that still lives in the remote deserts of the Middle East.

Like the wolves that discovered it was in their best interest to hitch themselves to humans, the Near Eastern wildcat did the same thing. The process of feline domestication occurred around 10,000 years ago. This was originally thought to be about the same time wolves were “transforming” themselves, but new research and evidence has found the domestication of dogs may have actually began much earlier – from 19,000 to 32,000 years ago.

Early humans found wolves useful to keep garbage dumps cleaned up, and other predators away from settlements. Felines were highly valued because of their superior hunting skills to keep mice, rats and other vermin from destroying grains and grasses stored in local collection sites. But they most likely began the domestication process in the same way as dogs, by hanging around garbage piles and dumps hunting rodents.

Like the wolf, the wildcats essentially domesticated themselves. As long as they didn’t cause trouble, they were tolerated by humans. The friendlier kitties would likely have been accepted around homes to control rodents, and as cats became more trusting of humans, the felines would have allowed them to handle their kittens. Living close to humans, the small wildcats (they were a bit larger than today’s house cats), had plenty of prey and would have found safety from larger cats and hyenas that preyed on them. Since they weren’t bothering the humans, they were allowed to stay when humans saw there was a benefit to having these cats close by.

Once trade routes were established, cats were transported around the world, and as people began to spread out to new regions, they took their cats with them. Going by the DNA findings, researchers discovered cats were clustered genetically into five subspecies: the Near Eastern wildcat, the Chinese desert cat, the Southern African wildcat, the Central Asian wildcat, and the European wildcat. All domesticated cats fall into the same DNA cluster as the Near Eastern wildcat, proving this is the ancestor of today’s house cats. Tracing the mitochondrial DNA that’s passed on through the female line, at least five female Near Eastern wildcats are direct ancestors (matriarchs) of all domesticated cats. Researchers believe the genetic diversity of the Near Eastern wildcat suggests it has existed for 70,000 to 100,000 years.

Cats and dogs are the only species that have domesticated themselves. Man is responsible for domesticating livestock and other species. Like the wolf, a small wildcat took an opportunity to attach herself to humans for food and safety. Both animals were willing to give up their wild roots for a comfort and security only man could provide. It’s almost as if our paths were meant to become one all those years ago.

Top photo by carterse
Bottom photo by Patrick Finnegan

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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