Domestication of humans by the cat

By Razib Khan | June 28, 2007 3:43 pm

kitten.jpgThere’s a paper to be published on domestic cat phylogenetics in Science tomorrow. National Geographic has a summary, but Forbes has a more thorough treatment. The short of it is that the maternal lineages (mtDNA) of domestic cats seem derived from the Near Eastern varieties . The acculturation of humanity toward domestic cats seems to have taken place gradually between 12,000 and 3,600 years ago, the presence of five distinct maternal lineages suggests that it wasn’t one event, but several simultaneous parallel ones. Sedentary populations rooted around agriculture were the likely necessary environment for the emergence of the cultural co-evolution between cats and humans. Though this study is interesting, please note that the survey of female lineages is a small slice of the total ancestry. Male mediated hybridization wouldn’t be picked up, and the interfertility of domestic and wild cats means there likely has been genetic exchange between the two groups over time.
Update: Nick Wade in The New York Time has more.

  • Ruchira

    Still, outside of their talent for eating mice and rats, felines weren’t of any obvious value to humankind — not like pigs, goats and cattle, which people worked hard to domesticate. Instead, cats likely won humans over with a charm offensive, Driscoll said.
    “Cats are nice. They tame down well, and there was just no reason for people not to like them…”
    I have often wondered about the same thing – why we like cats (some of us, more than others) since they don’t perform a “service” like most other domesticated animals. My own theory is that
    1. They are very clean animals and for the most part take care of their grooming and bury their own crap.
    2. An adult cat is roughly the same size as a 6 – 12 mo. human baby. Holding a cat in our arms or in the lap feels very similar to holding a baby.
    3.The purring of a contented cat is as close as we can come to interspecies conversation.

  • Carol Lee Wood

    It’s nice to think WE were wooed and ‘domesticated’ by a species rather than the other way around.

  • Allison

    What a nice article. After swabbing my cheek for Mitochonrial DNA and finding out MY matriarch was one of the first ‘out of africa’ My cats can now join me.

  • Alan Kellogg

    Scientific American has an article on cat evolution in the July 2007 issue. A broad overview rather than the focused study you posted about, but still informative regarding domestic cat origins.
    Then you have this old saying, “In ancient days Man domesticated the cat. And the cat, being a courteous beast, returned the favor.”

  • Fluffy

    There’s a reason we call “house cats,” by that descriptive title. I don’t think there’s any other creature that enjoys hearth and home as much as a cat–and the companionship of humans.
    But as the article says, the cat chooses to make a human home his home also.
    I once rescued an abandonned and starving cat and gave him to the neighbors across the street. I had never seen a cat so eager to call a human home his own and he doted on his new owners as they did on him. Nonetheless, he loved being outdoors, sometimes wandering for several hours, yet always returning home for food and love after a few hours away.
    Perhaps the feline has learned how to have the best of both worlds–the wild and the civilized. It’s a lesson we humans would do well to learn.

  • bioIgnoramus

    Very sound on cats, the Ancient Egyptian Johnnies.

  • Anna Z

    Just from general observation, a cat’s vocalizations are in a similar tonal range as a human infant’s. Sometimes when I hear a baby crying from a distance, I at first think I’m hearing a cat. (My own babies are all of the feline variety for the present.) One of my cats actually whines when she wants something.
    I think the cat-human bond makes a lot more sense if it was a process initiated by cats.

  • daveinboca

    Cats use a completely different language when talking to humans. The “meow” is either their attempt to imitate the human voice or their attempt to mimic a human baby, which they know we humans fall for.
    Our three cats use a gutteral growl when they see strange cats.

  • Peggy

    I agree that the success of the cat comes from their similarity to babies. Their size, sounds, their pretty and dainty appearance all fits. Also they are more than willing enough to allow us to treat them like babies within cat delineated limits of course!
    Whatsmore I’ve been thinking about our closest animal companions lately. Cats are, as I just said, like babies. Dogs are the greatest friends anyone could ever ask for. And horses embody many of our most noble virtues such as courage and servanthood.
    I don’t think it should be a surprise to anyone that these three species are the ones that we love the most.

  • razib

    i’ll chime in to concur with the katz = babies analogy. i’ve thought about that before.

  • Agnostic

    Except cat-owners pride themselves on, brag about, get giddy over the idea that their cats have enslaved / domesticated their owners. I don’t think you see that among parents (and certainly not dog-owners) — sure, they love their kids, think they’re the most adorable things, every babble is a vibration of the spheres.
    But cat-owners’ hearts melt when their cat defies even the simplest command. They show off how defiant their cat is the way a parent would show off a *talent* their kid had. Parents just don’t feel “enslavement joy” (I’m sure there’s a good German word for that somewhere).
    It’s one thing to cater to a baby’s every need, anxious about what might happen if you don’t get there soon enough. But being gleefully subservient to the cat’s fickleness — I think you need a brain parasite for that, as I’ve said before.

  • triticale

    Interesting to see that there appear to have been five domestications of cats. I just read this week (not in a primary scholarly source) that dog genomics show the same number – five – for domestication of wolves. This would not, of course, include recent wolf crosses in dog breeding, which are actually a primary interest of mine.

  • Peter Longini

    House cats have been very successful in mastering the technique of tranining larger animals, including people, to meet their needs in return for affection and occasional vermin control. I have seen them apply the same treatment to dogs, apes, and even elephants with similar success.

  • Ruchira

    Agnostic: There is a German word for it – Verrücktheit.
    But I agree with you that some cat owners overdo the “I don’t own my cat, he/she/it owns me” bit. In any case, don’t make too fine a distinction between cat and dog owners. Some of us love both. But only the cat inspires exaggerated, reverential and hyperbolic narratives – precisely because we cannot for the most part “control” them, as also for their incredible physical grace.

  • charlotte

    “But being gleefully subservient to the cat’s fickleness — I think you need a brain parasite for that, as I’ve said before”
    well that’s very Bubble Boy of you, metaphorically speaking. Lacking immunity, you only breath your own air, the bubble avoiding the true feelings of those you just don’t get.
    Prick a hole in it, and listen up.
    Cats are not fickle. I have known dying cats drag themselves to their peoples’ front door so as to be closer at the moment of death. In other cases, every cat I’v had, the night before it died, somehow manged to crawl to my beside while in terrible discomfort, to say goodby.
    Animals don’t live very long on the whole. Feelings about them, when there are any, may be correpsondingly intense.

  • Ruchira

    I agree with Charlotte. Cats are not selfish or fickle at all. Very, very affectionate actually. As for dying cats cuddling up to you in their last days, I have experienced it too. It is heartbreaking and extraordinarily gratifying.

  • Allison

    Yes, my old Franz ‘Bo’ Boaz ( He was a cat anthropologist observing human behaviour, hence his name )
    I had the Vet come to the house and euthanise him on my bed.
    For the next week the other four howled and sniffed for him.
    I still howl

  • John Ov Acton

    I love cats, I had one that lasted for 14.5 years before he died he was acting a bit strangely, on the night he died he ran into my arms, his heart beating so fast and just snuffed it. I wasn’t sure if he was dead or in a coma or something as he was still warm. I phoned my friend who is a nurse and asked him if he had a stethoscope, he did and brought it round, listened for heatbeat byt sadly he was gone. I put his body in his basket and let him share one last poignant night in my bedroom. I buried him in the garden the next day.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar