Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rise of the Goddess

We do not know how long the transformation of the Middle Eastern wildcat into an affectionate home companion took. Animals can be domesticated quite rapidly under controlled conditions. In one famous experiment, begun in 1959,Russian scientists using highly selective breeding produced tame silver foxes from wild ones in just 40 years. But without doors or windowpanes, Neolithic farmers would have been hard-pressed to control the breeding of cats even if they wanted to. It seems reasonable to suggest that the lack of human influence on breeding and the probable intermixing of house cats and wildcats militated against rapid taming, causing the metamorphosis to occur over thousands of years.

Although the exact timeline of cat domestication remains uncertain, long-known archaeological evidence affords some insight into the process. After the Cypriot find, the next oldest hints of an association between humans and cats are a feline molar tooth from an archaeological deposit in Israel dating to roughly 9,000 years ago and another tooth from Pakistan dating to around 4,000 years ago.

Testament to full domestication comes from a much later period. A nearly 3,700-year-old ivory cat statuette from Israel suggests the cat was a common sight around homes and villages in the Fertile Crescent before its introduction to Egypt. This scenario makes sense, given that all the other domestic animals (except the donkey) and plants were introduced to the Nile Valley from the Fertile Crescent. But it is Egyptian paintings from the so-called New Kingdom period—Egypt’s golden era, which began nearly
3,600 years ago—that provide the oldest known unmistakable depictions of full domestication. These paintings typically show cats poised under chairs, sometimes collared or tethered, and often eating from bowls or feeding on scraps. The abundance of these illustrations signifies that cats had become common members of Egyptian households by this time.

It is in large part as a result of evocative images such as these that scholars traditionally perceived ancient Egypt as the locus of cat domestication. Even the oldest Egyptian representations of wildcats are 5,000 to 6,000 years younger than the 9,500-year-old Cypriot burial, however. Although ancient Egyptian culture cannot claim initial domestication of the cat among its many achievements, it surely played a pivotal role in subsequently molding the domestication dynamic and spreading cats throughout the world. Indeed, the Egyptians took the love of cats to a whole new level. By 2,900 years ago the domestic cat had become the official deity of Egypt in the form of the goddess Bastet, and house cats were sacrificed, mummified and buried in great numbers at Bastet’s sacred city, Bubastis. Measured by the ton, the sheer number of cat mummies found there indicates that Egyptians were not just harvesting feral or wild populations but, for the first time in history, were actively breeding domestic cats.

Egypt officially prohibited the export of their venerated cats for centuries. Nevertheless, by 2,500 years ago the animals had made their way to Greece, proving the inefficacy of export bans. Later, grain ships sailed directly from Alexandria to destinations throughout the Roman Empire, and cats are certain to have been onboard to keep the rats in check. Thus introduced, cats could have established colonies in port cities and then fanned out from there. By 2,000 years ago, when the Romans were expanding their empire, domestic cats were traveling with them and becoming common throughout Europe. Evidence for their spread comes from the German site of Tofting in Schleswig, which dates to between the 4th and 10th centuries, as well as increasing references to cats in art and literature from that period. (Oddly, domestic cats seem to have reached the British Isles before the Romans brought them over—a dispersal that researchers cannot yet explain.)

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the globe, domestic cats had presumably spread to the Orient almost 2,000 years ago, along well-established trade routes between Greece and Rome and the Far East, reaching China by way of Mesopotamia and arriving in India via land and sea. Then something interesting happened. Because no native wildcats with which the newcomers could interbreed lived in the Far East, the Oriental domestic cats soon began evolving along their own trajectory. Small, isolated groups of Oriental domestics gradually acquired distinctive coat colors and other mutations through a process known as genetic drift, in which traits that are neither beneficial nor maladaptive become fixed in a population.

This drift led to the emergence of the Korat, the Siamese, the Birman and other “natural breeds,” which were described by Thai Buddhist monks in a book called the Tamara Maew (meaning “Cat-Book Poems”) that may date back to 1350. The putative antiquity of these breeds received support from the results of genetic studies announced last year, in which Marilyn Menotti-Raymond of the National Cancer Institute and Leslie Lyons of the University of California, Davis, found DNA differences between today’s European and Oriental domestic cat breeds indicative of more than 700 years of independent cat breeding in Asia and Europe.

As to when house cats reached the Americas, little is known. Christopher Columbus and other seafarers of his day reportedly carried cats with them on transatlantic voyages. And voyagers onboard the Mayflower and residents of Jamestown are said to have brought cats with them to control vermin and to bring good luck. How house cats got to Australia is even murkier, although researchers presume that they arrived with European explorers in the 1600s. Our group at the U.S. National Institutes of Health is tackling the problem using DNA.

Have Ca ts, Will Travel

As agriculture and permanent human settlements spread from the Fertile Crescent to the rest of the world, so, too, did domestic cats.
The map below shows the earliest putative occurrences of house cats in regions around the globe.

Source of Information : Scientific American(2009-06)

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