Cat Domestication Traced To Ancient Chinese Farm: Felines Became Friends 5,300 Years Ago

By Nsikan Akpan on December 16, 2013 3:08 PM EST

Long before cats became the stuff of Internet infamy, one ancient, wild feline ventured to become amiable with an ancient human, forming a domestication bond that has lasted thousands of years. The big questions are where, when and why did this happen?

Shaanxi Province, China...5,300 years ago...to protect farms from rodents called zokors.

Those are the answers offered by a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which reports the earliest signs of cat domestication on record. "Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats," said Fiona Marshall, co-author and professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis. The investigation was led by paleontologist Yaowu Hu and his colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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Ancient Egyptians revered cats 4,000 years ago, but the oldest suggestion of felines being special to humans was found in a 9,500-year-old grave in Cyprus, where a wildcat was ostensibly interred with a human. Yet little is known about what occurred during this five millennia gap. What were the stops on the road to feline friendship?

Quanchucun was a prehistoric Chinese farm town, where residents made elaborate painted pots, raised pigs, and kept dogs during the New Stone Age. They also grew large fields of millet, a popular grain similar to wheat.

The Near Eastern Wildcat, native to Western Asia and Africa, is believed to be the primary ancestor of all domestic cats now living around the globe. Credit: <a href=
The Near Eastern Wildcat, native to Western Asia and Africa, is believed to be the primary ancestor of all domestic cats now living around the globe. Credit: Wikimedia

This study is one of food sharing. The archeologists discovered clues that the millet fields were plagued by rodents, called zokors. Mole-like in shape, zokors are the size of brown subway rats: up to 10 inches from head to tail. Burrow holes along with ceramic storage containers designed to keep out zokors were littered around archaelogical dig, indicating the rodents were a nuisance. Chemical analysis of zokor bones argued that the rodents survived on the same millet-rich diet as the humans, dogs, and pigs that subsisted on the farm.

Two wildcats found near the farm also possessed this millet-rich chemical signature, meaning they were likely feeding on zokors, rather than other prey living nearby-deer and hares. One cat consumed less meat and more millet-based food than was expected. Both cat specimens were smaller than wildcats, according to biometric analysis, but within the size-range of domestic cats. These findings suggest the two feral felines were allowed to live on the farm, outside the normal range of Near Eastern wildcats.

Recent DNA studies argue that most of the world's 600 million domestic cats are descendents of Near Eastern wildcats. Currently, there is no DNA evidence to tie the two Quanchucun cats to Near Eastern species, but an genetic investigation in France and China is ongoing. "We do not yet know whether these cats came to China from the Near East, whether they interbred with Chinese wild-cat species, or even whether cats from China played a previously unsuspected role in domestication," Marshall said. "Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits."

Source: Hu Y, Hu S, Wang W, Wu X, et al. Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication. PNAS. 2013.

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