If your cat acts like it rules your apartment, and your soul, there’s a good reason for that: Your feline descends from a long, enduring line of four-legged overlords.
A DNA analysis of more than 200 cats reveals how, over the last 9,000 years, the ancestors of today’s domestic cat emerged from the Near East and Egypt to conquer the rest of the world.
The new study, published on Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, suggests that long before cats became our couch-hogging, computer-smothering companions, they were hard workers — protecting barns, ships, and villages from disease-carrying rodents.
Researchers in France and Belgium analyzed DNA extracted from the preserved teeth and bones of cats from Europe, north and east Africa, and southwest Asia. The remains spanned from Mesolithic Romania (around the middle of Europe’s Stone Age) to 20th-century Angola.
The team found that cats spread in two waves, using humans to carry them via ancient land and maritime trade routes.
The first group, dubbed IV-A, first appeared in southwest Asia and eventually spread to Europe as early as 4,400 B.C. The wildcat ancestor Felis silvestris lybica proved particularly adept at chasing off grain-eating rats in the Fertile Crescent, and early farming communities were likely first to domesticate the felines. Though, as we know, cats really domesticated themselves.
The second cat group, IV-C, dominated ancient Egypt, where cats were considered sacred. Then, in the first millennium B.C., cats spread to the Roman Empire and across the Mediterranean region. Researchers said that sailors likely brought cats along to quell the rodent populations on ships.
“Having arrived at these locations, introduced cats mingled with local tame or wild cats, leading to hybridization,” the authors wrote in a press release.
Yet it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the recessive gene mutation associated with tabby cat markings (the distinctive blotched stripes) appeared in the feline gene pool. Tabbies first showed up in southwest Asia, then spread throughout Europe and Africa.
This suggests that people likely initially started domesticating cats based only on their behavioral traits, rather than aesthetic factors like color or stripes, the authors said.
So there you have it, cats first proved themselves useful and then used their cuteness to make them truly indispensable. Sounds about right.