House Cat Origin Traced to Middle Eastern Wildcat Ancestor

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Agriculture led to cities and towns, as well as a new ecological environment that cats were able to exploit.

There are some 600 million house cats around the world, study co-author O'Brien added.

"Domestication was one hell of a successful natural experiment."

Cats on the Move

Once the formerly wild felines became household companions, the same cats appear to have accompanied human tribes as they gradually migrated and spread throughout the ancient world. (Check out our ancestors' journey through the Fertile Crescent.)

"It's sort of analogous to the 'out of Africa' theory that people talk about for humans," Driscoll said. "In the same way, domestic cats from Europe are really the same as domestic cats from Israel or China or wherever."

The earliest archaeological evidence for domestic cats has been found in Cyprus and dates back approximately 9,500 years.

(Read: "Oldest Known Pet Cat? 9,500-Year-Old Burial Found on Cyprus" [April 8, 2004].)

Cat studies of all types are hindered by the many physical and behavioral similarities between domestic cats and their wild relatives. In fact, it is often difficult or impossible for even the trained eye to tell them apart, and interbreeding has created many hybrids of the two.

Genetic Clues

Driscoll's study began because genetics may be one of the only ways to determine which cats are truly wild. His group managed to successfully herd about a thousand wild and domestic cats and sample their DNA to produce the genetic study, which will appear in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

In search of cats' wild ancestor, the team studied modern wildcat subspecies including the Near Eastern wildcat, the European wildcat, the Central Asian wildcat, the southern African wildcat, and the Chinese desert cat.

The sampling of feline genes revealed that the Near Eastern wildcat and domestic cats fell into the same genetic clade, a group of species with the same ancestor. This meant the ancient ancestors of the wildcats were likely the first cats to be domesticated.

The genetic diversity of living cats revealed that they must have existed for some 70,000 to 100,000 years to produce that degree of diversity.

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