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An Asian leopard cat

Farmers in China domesticated Asian Leopard Cats 5,000 Years Ago

Farmers in China may have domesticated Asian leopard cats during the Neolithic era, more than 5,000 years ago, a new study says. This is a different species than the only living type of domestic cat today, the Felis catus that so many people keep as pets.

In modern China, people now keep Felis catus , not the leopard cat ( P. bengalensis ) that farmers domesticated so long ago, says a press release from the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.  (The small Asian leopard cat should not be confused with the clouded leopard, a much larger big cat in Asia). The one species of domestic cat in the world today, descended from a wildcat in Africa and the Near East, later replaced the domesticated leopard cat in China, the researchers said.

A group of French, British and Chinese researchers did the new study that identified cat bones dating from around 3500 BC discovered in agricultural settlements in Shaanxi Province in 2001.

“All the bones belong to the leopard cat, a distant relation of the western wildcat, from which all modern domestic cats are descended,” the press release states. “The scientists have thus provided evidence that cats began to be domesticated in China earlier than 3000 BC. This scenario is comparable to that which took place in the Near East and Egypt, where a relationship between humans and cats developed following the birth of agriculture.”

A domestic cat skull from the Neolithic site of Wuzhuangguoliang in Shaanxi Province, from 3200-2800 BC.

A domestic cat skull from the Neolithic site of Wuzhuangguoliang in Shaanxi Province, from 3200-2800 BC. (© J.-D. Vigne, CNRS/MNHN)

When researchers with the Chinese Academy of Sciences found ancient cat bones in human settlements in Shanxii and Henan, they asked if they were evidence of a relationship between small Chinese cats and humans in the 4 th millennium BC or if they were the first domestic cats arriving from the Near East.

The DNA had degraded so that it was not possible to identify the species that way, so they looked at the mandibles. Small-cat bone structures are very similar and cannot be differentiated using conventional techniques. The researchers used a process called geometric morphometric analysis on five cat mandibles that were 4,900 to 5,500 years old.

“Their work clearly determined that the bones all belonged to the leopard cat ( Prionailurus bengalensis ). Still very widespread in Eastern Asia today, this wildcat, which is a distant relation of the western wildcat ( Felis silvestris lybica ), is well-known for its propensity to frequent areas with a strong human presence. Just as in the Near East and Egypt, leopard cats were probably attracted into Chinese settlements by the proliferation of rodents who took advantage of grain stores,” the press release states.

Scientists used rice grains to measure the cranial capacity of domesticated Asian leopard cats. Today there is only one species of house cat, descended from wildcats in the Near East and Africa. (© J.-D. Vigne, CNRS/MNHN)

It is now known that cat domestication happened in at least three parts of the world—Egypt, the Near East and China around the time agriculture arose.

Today, there are more house cats than any other domesticated animal in the world. Experts estimate there are more than 500 million domestic cats worldwide. A study published in 2004 traces the close relation between humans and cats to the Near East about 9000 to 7000 BC, after agriculture was first practiced, the press release says.

The press release asks whether the western domestic cats that replaced the leopard cat after the end of the New Stone Age arrived “in China with the opening of the Silk Road, when the Roman and Han empires began to establish tenuous links between East and West? This is the next question that needs to be answered.”

Featured image: An Asian leopard cat ( hubpages)

By Mark Miller

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