It is by turns aloof and affectionate, serene and savage, endearing and exasperating.
Despite its mercurial nature, however, the house cat is the most popular pet in the world. A third of American households have feline members, sand more than 600 million cats live among humans worldwide. Yet as familiar as these creatures are, a complete understanding of their origins has proved elusive. Whereas other once wild animals were domesticated for their milk, meat, wool or servile labor, cats contribute virtually nothing in the way of sustenance or work to human endeavor. How, then, did they become commonplace fixtures in our homes?
Scholars long believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to keep cats as pets, starting around 3,600 years ago. But genetic and archaeological discoveries made over the past five years have revised this scenario—and have generated fresh insights into both the ancestry of the house cat and how its relationship with humans evolved.
The question of where house cats first arose has been challenging to resolve for several reasons. Although a number of investigators suspected that all varieties descend from just one cat species— Felis silvestris, the wildcat—they could not be certain. In addition, that species is not confined to a small corner of the globe. It is represented by populations living throughout the Old World—from Scotland to South Africa and from Spain to Mongolia—and until recently scientists had no way genet of determining unequivocally which of these wildcat populations gave rise to the tamer, so called domestic kind. Indeed, as an alternative to the Egyptian origins hypothesis, some researchers had even proposed that cat domestication occurred in a number of different locations, with each domestication spawning a different breed. Confounding the issue was the fact that members of these wildcat groups are hard to tell apart from one another and from feral domesticated cats with so-called mackerel-tabby coats because all of them have the same pelage pattern of curved stripes and they interbreed freely with one another, further blurring population boundaries.
In 2000 one of us (Driscoll) set out to tackle the question by assembling DNA samples from some 979 wildcats and domestic cats in southern Africa, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and the Middle East. Because wildcats typically defend a single territory for life, he expected that the genetic composition of wildcat groups would vary across geography but remain stable over time, as has occurred in many other cat species. If regional indigenous groups of these animals could be distinguished from one another on the basis of their DNA and if the DNA of domestic cats more closely resembled that of one of the wildcat populations, then he would have clear evidence for where domestication began.
In the genetic analysis, published in 2007, Driscoll, another of us (O’Brien) and their colleagues focused on two kinds of DNA that molecular biologists traditionally examine to differentiate subgroups of mammal species: DNA from mitochondria, which is inherited exclusively from the mother, and short, repetitive sequences of nuclear DNA known as microsatellites. Using established computer routines, they assessed the ancestry of each of the 979 individuals sampled based on their genetic signatures. Specifically, they measured how similar each cat’s DNA was to that of all the other cats and grouped the animals having similar DNA together. They then asked whether most of the animals in a group lived in the same region.
The results revealed five genetic clusters, or lineages, of wildcats. Four of these lineages corresponded neatly with four of the known subspecies of wildcat and dwelled in specific places: F. silvestris silvestris in Europe, F. s. bieti in China, F. s. ornata in Central Asia and F. s. cafra in southern Africa. The fifth lineage, however, included not only the fifth known subspecies of wildcat—F. s. lybica in the Middle East—but also the hundreds of domestic cats that were sampled, including purebred and mixed-breed felines from the U.S., the U.K. and Japan. In fact, genetically, F. s. lybica wildcats collected in remote deserts of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were virtually indistinguishable from domestic cats. That the domestic cats grouped with F. s. lybica alone among wildcats meant that domestic cats arose in a single locale, the Middle East, and not in other places where wildcats are common.
Once we had figured out where house cats came from, the next step was to ascertain when they had become domesticated. Geneticists can often estimate when a particular evolutionary event occurred by studying the quantity of random genetic mutations that accumulate at a steady rate over time. But this so-called molecular clock ticks a mite too slowly to precisely date events as recent as the past 10,000 years, the likely interval for cat domestication. To get a bead on when the taming of the cat began, we turned to the archaeological record. One recent find has proved especially informative in this regard.
In 2004 Jean-Denis Vigne of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and his colleagues reported unearthing the earliest evidence suggestive of humans keeping cats as pets. The discovery comes from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where 9,500 years ago an adult human of unknown gender was laid to rest in a shallow grave. An assortment of items accompanied the body—stone tools, a lump of iron oxide, a handful of seashells and, in its own tiny grave just 40 centimeters away, an eight-month-old cat, its body oriented in the same westward direction as the human’s.
Because cats are not native to most Mediterranean islands, we know that people must have brought them over by boat, probably from the adjacent Levantine coast. Together the transport of cats to the island and the burial of the human with a cat indicate that people had a special, intentional relationship with cats nearly
10,000 years ago in the Middle East. This locale is consistent with the geographic origin we arrived at through our genetic analyses. It appears, then, that cats were being tamed just as humankind was establishing the first settlements in the part of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent.
Source of Information : Scientific American(2009-06)