The process of wild cats turning into rodent-hunters, then pampered pets, and, eventually, enthusiastic Roomba riders, is poorly understood. But a new archaeological study suggests cats were domesticated much earlier, and over a much broader area, than previously believed.
Data on cat domestication is sparse. Remains of a wild cat were buried near a human on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus 9,500 years ago, but the oldest evidence of domestic cats comes from Egypt, 4,000 years ago. What cats were up to in the five millennia between the two discoveries is almost a complete mystery (though we suspect napping took up a good deal of that time).
Cats in China
In the new paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined 5,300-year-old feline bones found in the excavated Neolithic village of Quanhucun, China. They determined that the animals were within the size range of modern domestic cats, rather than the larger Near Eastern wild cats from which domestic cats descended.
That discovery pushes back the earliest domestication of cats in China from approximately 2,000 years ago to over 5,000 years ago. This suggests that the cat-human relationship developed in the Near East and dispersed across Eurasia thousands of years earlier than previously believed.
The Quanhucun cat bones came from at least two animals. Using isotopic analysis, the team determined the cats ate a significant amount of millet, the main crop grown in the settlement. One of the cats, however, consumed much less meat and more millet than the other. Grain-based diets are unusual for cats, which are natural carnivores. The surprising results led the researchers to theorize the animal may have been unable to hunt and either was tolerated as a scavenger of leftovers or even kept as a pet.
The jawbone of the second cat studied had teeth showing significant wear associated with age. An elderly cat indicates an environment conducive to the species. The cat may even have survived to its advanced age with some help from caring villagers (who likely received little show of affection in return).
Based on other archeological finds at the site, the team believes the cats acted as pest control for the villagers’ millet stores. But the advanced age of one of the cats studied, as well as the other cat’s millet-rich diet, suggest the cats may have been valued as more than mere rodent-catchers, and even cared for as pets. (There is no evidence, however, that they were ever forced to wear humiliating outfits.)
The study’s rewriting of cats’ domestication timeline is impressive. But as significant as the Quanhucun find is, it would still be more than 5,000 years before the human-cat relationship evolved from one of mutual convenience to one of one-sided obsession.
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