Cat Domestication Traced to Chinese Farmers 5,300 Years Ago


Wildcat. (Credit: © XK / Fotolia)

There are cat people, and there are dog people, and on my Facebook page there are a multitude of cat photos and jokes, many more than dog photos or jokes.  Of course, any cat owner knows who rules in the household.  Being owned by a cat, Sam, I know that my job is to keep him fed and keep his box clean.  Other than that, if he deigns to sit on my lap and show approval by purring, that's his choice.  Definitely, not mine.

So where do cats come from?  Common thought is Egypt, though that is yet to be confirmed by either archeology or DNA analysis.  Now comes research about cats who appear to have started the domestication of humans in the village of Quanhucun in China some 5,300 years ago.

"At least three different lines of scientific inquiry allow us to tell a story about cat domestication that is reminiscent of the old 'house that Jack built' nursery rhyme," said study co-author Fiona Marshall, PhD, a professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.


File:This Is the House That Jack Built.jpg
Randolph Caldecott illustrated version, 1878.
This is the horse and the hound and the horn
That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn
That woke the priest all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.
~ 18th Century English Nursery Rhyme

"Our data suggest that cats were attracted to ancient farming villages by small animals, such as rodents that were living on the grain that the farmers grew, ate and stored."

"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," 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."

Cat remains rarely are found in ancient archaeological sites, and little is known about how they were domesticated. Cats were thought to have first been domesticated in ancient Egypt, where they were kept some 4,000 years ago, but more recent research suggests close relations with humans may have occurred much earlier, including the discovery of a wild cat buried with a human nearly 10,000 years ago in Cyprus.

While it often has been argued that cats were attracted to rodents and other food in early farming villages and domesticated themselves, there has been little evidence for this theory.

The evidence for this study is derived from research in China led by Yaowu Hu and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Hu and his team analyzed eight bones from at least two cats excavated from the site.  Using radiocarbon dating and isotopic analyses of carbon and nitrogen traces in the bones of cats, dogs, deer and other wildlife unearthed near Quanhucan, the research team demonstrated how a breed of once-wild cats carved a niche for themselves in a society that thrived on the widespread cultivation of the grain millet.

Carbon isotopes indicate that rodents, domestic dogs and pigs from the ancient village were eating millet, but deer were not. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes show that cats were preying on animals that lived on farmed millet, probably rodents. At the same time, an ancient rodent burrow into a storage pit and the rodent-proof design of grain storage pots indicate that farmers had problems with rodents in the grain stores.

Other clues gleaned from the Quanhucun food web suggest the relationship between cats and humans had begun to grow closer. One of the cats was aged, showing that it survived well in the village. Another ate fewer animals and more millet than expected, suggesting that it scavenged human food or was fed.

Recent DNA studies suggest that most of the estimated 600 million domestic cats now living around the globe are descendants most directly of the Near Eastern Wildcat, one of the five Felis sylvestris lybica wildcat subspecies still found around the Old World.

Marshall, an expert on animal domestication, said there currently is no DNA evidence to show whether the cats found at Quanhucun are descendants of the Near Eastern Wildcat, a subspecies not native to the area. If the Quanhucun cats turn out to be close descendants of the Near Eastern strain, it would suggest they were domesticated elsewhere and later introduced to the region.

"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.
*  *  *  *  *
Now, the story claims that humans domesticated cats.  But I know and you know it was the other way around, and that as far as cats are concerned, we humans have a long way to go to be fully domesticated.  Science will eventually work this out.

Story Source:  Yaowu Hu, Songmei Hu, Weilin Wang, Xiaohong Wu, Fiona B. Marshall, Xianglong Chen, Liangliang Hou, and Changsui Wang. Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication. PNAS, December 16, 2013

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