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A very close up detailed portrait of a Scottish wildcat snarling and showing its teeth. Source: alan1951 / Adobe Stock

Wild Twist in the Story of Cat Domestication

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A study has revealed new information about the ancient migration and domestication of cats in Europe following the arrival of their wild ancestors in Europe from the Near East (the modern Middle East and Western Asia) many millennia ago.

Reporting on their findings in the journal Antiquity, the researchers say they’ve uncovered evidence to suggest that Near Eastern wildcats may have arrived in Central Europe a few thousand years earlier than previously suspected. These animals were the forerunners of the modern domestic cat , and it was their movements westward and northward into European countries that ultimately led to their domestication.

Ancient cat skull from Grudziadz, Poland. (MT Crajcarz / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Ancient cat skull from Grudziadz, Poland. (MT Crajcarz / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

Cats Have Been in Central Europe for a Long, Long time

The study was carried out by a team of archaeologists and genetic experts from Poland and several other Central European countries. It looked at the results of genetic studies and radiocarbon dating tests of the remains of both wild and domestic cats, covering an era ranging back approximately 10,000 years, to the Late Pleistocene period, and moving forward to the Late Middle Ages. Their initial studies focused on mitochondrial DNA, which is the genetic material passed on from mother to children in all animal species (this type of DNA is easier to recover than nuclear DNA). They were able to obtain results from more than 200 ancient cat skeletons collected from the Near East and European regions, which were found at 102 separate archaeological sites.

Selected mandibles of Near Eastern wildcats/domestic cats (a–f) and European wildcats (g–i) (photographs by M. Krajcarz / Antiquity Publications Ltd).

Selected mandibles of Near Eastern wildcats/domestic cats (a–f) and European wildcats (g–i) (photographs by M. Krajcarz / Antiquity Publications Ltd ).

The goal of this research project was to uncover as many details as possible about the process of the domestication of cats in Central Europe. What they found essentially pushed the established timelines back more than 1,000 years, revealing that wildcats were migrating westward and northward at a surprisingly early date.

“We confirmed the appearance of domestic cats in Poland during the Roman period [0-375 AD] using a combination of zooarchaeological, genetic, and absolute dating, pushing back their arrival by a millennium,” the study authors wrote in their Antiquity paper. “We later demonstrated that cats bearing the mitochondrial DNA haplotypes of the Near Eastern wildcat were already present in Central Europe in the Early Neolithic [12,000 years ago], indicating that their dispersal into Central Europe was more complex than previously thought.”

Before this new study, the oldest example of Near Eastern wildcat DNA found in Central Europe came from a specimen recovered in Romania, which was dated to 7,700 BC, or a bit less than 10,000 years ago. Other finds in Central Europe produced wildcat DNA that could be dated back to about 3,000 BC. But the new research shows these animals would have been descended from wildcats that arrived before the Neolithic officially began in 10,000 BC.

“This raised questions about cats' way from the Near East to Central Europe and their relationships with humans, including their domestication status,” said study co-author Dr. Danijela Popović, an ancient DNA expert from the University of Warsaw.

Simplified routes for the early expansion of Felis silvestris lybica across Europe. (Danijela Popović, et al / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Simplified routes for the early expansion of Felis silvestris lybica across Europe. (Danijela Popović, et al / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

The researchers note that the presence of Near Eastern wildcat DNA in Central Europe doesn’t necessarily prove that these creatures resided there. They may have wandered that far from their original homeland, but their DNA could have been carried there by hybrids created when indigenous European wildcats mated with wildcats from the Near East at other locations. It may have been these European/Near Eastern hybrids that were responsible for the earlier-than-suspected distribution of Near Eastern wildcat DNA throughout Central Europe.

The archaeologists hope their ongoing research will solve the question of which one of these two scenarios is correct. But either way, it shows that wildcats were in Central Europe before humans began forming agricultural settlements .

“This means that their dispersal through Europe preceded the first farmers' arrival , so these cats probably were still wild animals that naturally colonized Central Europe,” said Dr Popović.

Unanswered Questions about Cats and the First Neolithic Farmers

This discovery that wildcats were in parts of Europe before the first farmers has many interesting implications that raise some intriguing questions.

For example, if wildcats were roaming Central Europe while the first farming communities were being formed, did a symbiotic relationship develop between wildcats and humans that led to the former’s semi-domestication?  There is also the question of just exactly how far Early Neolithic cats may have penetrated into European territory. Did they stop in Central Europe, or did they continue to migrate westward? There is also uncertainty about interbreeding between Near Eastern and European wildcats: if it occurred at all, did it take place in Central Europe, or did it happen farther to the south and east, with the ancestors of the hybrid cats then moving into Central Europe shortly before the start of the Neolithic period?

Answers to these questions may be forthcoming in the near future. The team of Central European researchers and genetic experts will continue to study the DNA of cat specimens found throughout Europe and the Near East, in their quest for further discoveries. They hope that the techniques of nuclear DNA extraction, which can capture the full genetic makeup of an ancient creature instead of just part of it, will reveal more detailed information about the movements of ancient wildcats and the process of cat domestication.

The incredible Shrinking Cat

With respect to domestication, the researchers uncovered clear evidence showing that domesticated cats were bred for smaller size as time passed. The very first domesticated cats were about the same size as European wildcats, but by Roman times, when cats had become a popular household pet, domesticated cats were noticeably smaller than this. Over the next few hundred years they continued to decrease in size, until they were actually smaller than modern cats during the medieval period .

The team of archaeologists and genetics experts emphasize that the results published in Antiquity are preliminary, and therefore represent initial rather than final discoveries.

 “We believe that current research will allow us to understand the complexity of cat-human and cat-wildlife coexistence in Central Europe, from the earliest moments until recent times,” said Dr Popović, expressing her team’s hopes that fascinating revelations are still to come.

Top image: A very close up detailed portrait of a Scottish wildcat snarling and showing its teeth. Source: alan1951 / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

Comments

Pete Wagner's picture

Exactly, my friend.  There is/has been a tendency to credit the black-headed people of Sumer, which they dubiously call ‘the dawn of civilization’, with nearly every intelligent, social human behaviour, such as the collection and storage of food, and the tools used for it, whatever would logically/naturally result in value-added knowledge like fermentation/preservation via wild yeast/molds.  Then you look that long-mature German culture of beer and bread, and preserved cold-cuts, which was certainly there BEFORE the Romans barged into all the villages, took and brought stuff and slaves back to Rome.  Of course, living in smoky caves, which they would have done to survive the Ice Age, would be the perfect situation for understanding how store grains (wild or farmed), you’d want cats for the mice, and dogs for the bigger pests, Moreover, the Roman, Tacitus, wrote that the ancient Germans were great cattle herders, keeping milk, cheese, and meat - NOT having learned the methods from the black-haired people (of Sumerian ancestry).

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Cats would have been invaluable for as long as grain was stored, for as soon as grain is stored mice and rats seek to eat their way through it.

That doesn't necessarily need to begin with farming, for grain must have been harvested wild prior to that. The longheld ideas of farming bringing settlement are being overturned and that must have implications for understanding cat domestication.

Pete Wagner's picture

Cats, like many modern animals, were probably domesticated before the Ice Age.  The large ones did not survive it, but the small ones did.  Wild cats might be the product of 100k years when they were on their own, as opposed to being in households and human-occupied caves.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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