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How Cats and People Grew to Love Each Other

Long before cats ruled the Internet and tamed humans to do their bidding, they had to be domesticated themselves.

GPS tracking devices on house cats.

Today’s domestic cats are believed to be the descendants of ancient Near Eastern wildcats, and the previous discovery of a wildcat buried near a human in Cyprus roughly 9,500 years ago suggests some type of long-running relationship. The Egyptians famously thought very highly of cats, keeping them domestically and even administering medical treatment to them some 4,000 years ago.

Now a new study marks possibly the earliest known evidence of a beneficial relationship between humans and cats. Researchers analyzing 5,300-year-old cat bones, found at the village of Quanhucun in China, determined that the bones match up closely with those of modern domestic cats—and that people may have even fed the animals. (See “Cats Use ‘Irresistible’ Purr-Whine to Get Their Way.”)

Cats Followed Rats to Domestication

In the Yangshao period in China, farmers in the village of Quanhucun grew millet crops and kept domesticated pigs and dogs. This agricultural activity attracted rodents, which, in turn, may have attracted wildcats.

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A cat is pictured during a 2013 cat exhibition in Moscow.

At the archaeological site, scientists uncovered ancient rodent burrows leading to grain-storage pits. They also found ceramic vessels whose features suggest they were designed to keep rodents from pillaging food stores. This means there was plenty of pest-control work for cats to do and plenty of incentive for people to encourage them to move in. (Learn about National Geographic’s Little Kitties for Big Cats initiative.)

The ancient cats’ diet provided researchers with further clues about their relationship with people. Chemical analysis of the bones showed that one cat had eaten a largely plant-based diet—in other words, human-grown grain—while another had lived to an advanced age.

“These results suggest that cats may have played a variety of roles in the settlement, ranging from mutualistic hunters and scavengers to encouraged animals or even pets,” according to the study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The benefit would’ve been mutual: Villagers got a live-in rodent exterminator to protect their grain, while wildcats got a year-round supply of food. (And presumably a steady supply of warm laps.)

In other words, you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.