How cats conquered the world (and a few Viking ships)

Ewen Callaway in Nature:

CatResearchers know little about cat domestication, and there is active debate over whether the house cat (Felis silvestris) is truly a domestic animal — that is, its behaviour and anatomy are clearly distinct from those of wild relatives. “We don’t know the history of ancient cats. We do not know their origin, we don't know how their dispersal occurred,” says Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris. She presented the study at the 7th International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, UK, along with colleagues Claudio Ottoni and Thierry Grange. A 9,500-year-old human burial from Cyprus also contained the remains of a cat1. This suggests that the affiliation between people and felines dates at least as far back as the dawn of agriculture, which occurred in the nearby Fertile Crescent beginning around 12,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians may have tamed wild cats some 6,000 years ago2, and under later Egyptian dynasties, cats were mummified by the million. One of the few previous studies3 of ancient-cat genetics involved mitochondrial DNA (which, contrary to most nuclear DNA, is inherited through the maternal line only) for just three mummified Egyptian cats.

…Cat populations seem to have grown in two waves, the authors found. Middle Eastern wild cats with a particular mitochondrial lineage expanded with early farming communities to the eastern Mediterranean. Geigl suggests that grain stockpiles associated with these early farming communities attracted rodents, which in turn drew wild cats. After seeing the benefit of having cats around, humans might have begun to tame these cats. Thousands of years later, cats descended from those in Egypt spread rapidly around Eurasia and Africa.

More here.

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