for National Geographic News
Cat fanciers have long known that their feline friends have wild origins.
Now scientists have identified the house cat's maternal ancestors and traced them back to the Fertile Crescent.
The Near Eastern wildcat still roams the deserts of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries. (See map.) Between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago the animal gave rise to the genetic lineage that eventually produced all domesticated cats.
"It's plausible that the ancient [domestic cat] lineages were present in the wildcat populations back as far as 70,000 or 100,000 years ago," said study co-author Stephen O'Brien of the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland.
The wildcats may have been captured around 10,000 or 12,000 years ago when humans were settling down to farming, he added.
"One of nearly 40 wild cat species existing at that time, the little wildcat that lived in the Middle East had a genetic variance that allowed it to sort of try an experiment—let's walk in and see if we can get along with those people," O'Brien said.
One Hell of an Experiment
A research team led by geneticist Carlos Driscoll of the National Cancer Institute and scientists at the University of Oxford in England found five matriarchal lineages to which modern domestic cats belong.
"This tells us that domestic cats were sort of widely recruited, probably over time and space," Driscoll said.
But people probably weren't going out and catching—or herding—cats.
"The cats just sort of domesticated themselves. People today know that you can't keep a cat inside [without barriers], and 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent you couldn't just shut the window."
Farmers were likely the first to domesticate wildcats. The animals may have been helpful in hunting mice and other pests that plagued farm fields in the early human settlements, which had just sprang from the first agricultural development.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES