10,000 years of cats

DNA shows early spread of fe­lines in hu­man world

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - PERSPECTIVES - BY MAL­COLM RIT­TER THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Long be­fore cats be­came the dar­lings of Face­book and YouTube, they spread through the an­cient hu­man world.

A DNA study reached back thou­sands of years to track that con­quest and found ev­i­dence of two ma­jor dis­per­sals from the Mid­dle East, in which peo­ple ev­i­dently took cats with them. Ge­netic sig­na­tures the fe­lines had on those jour­neys are still seen in most mod­ern-day breeds.

Re­searchers an­a­lyzed DNA from 209 an­cient cats as old as 9,000 years from Europe, Africa and Asia, in­clud­ing some an­cient Egyp­tian cat mum­mies.

“They are di­rect wit­nesses of the sit­u­a­tion in the past,” said Eva-Maria Geigl of the Jac­ques Monod In­sti­tute in Paris. She and col­leagues also looked at 28 mod­ern feral cats from Bul­garia and east Africa.

It’s the lat­est glimpse into the com­pli­cated story of do­mes­ti­cated cats. They are descen­dants of wild an­ces­tors that learned to live with peo­ple and be­came rel­a­tively tame — though some cat own­ers would say that nowa­days, they don’t al­ways seem en­thu­si­as­tic about our com­pany.

The do­mes­ti­ca­tion process may have be­gun around 10,000 years ago when peo­ple set­tled in the Fer­tile Cres­cent, the archshaped re­gion that in­cludes the eastern shore of the Mediter­ranean Sea and land around the Ti­gris and Euphrates rivers. They stored grain, which drew ro­dents, which in turn at­tracted wild cats. An­i­mal re­mains in trash heaps might have at­tracted them, too. Over time, these wild fe­lines adapted to this man-made en­vi­ron­ment and got used to hang­ing around peo­ple.

Pre­vi­ous study had found a cat buried along­side a hu­man some 9,500 years ago in Cyprus, an is­land with­out any na­tive pop­u­la­tion of fe­lines. That in­di­cates the cat was brought by boat and it had some special re­la­tion­ship to that per­son, re­searchers say.

Cats were clearly tame by about 3,500 years ago in Egypt, where paint­ings of­ten placed them be­neath chairs. That shows by that time, “the cat makes its way to the house­hold,” said Geigl.

Hard to track

But the over­all do­mes­ti­ca­tion process has been hard for sci­en­tists to track, in part be­cause fos­sils skele­tons don’t re­veal whether a cat was wild or do­mes­ti­cated.

It’s eas­ier to dis­tin­guish dogs, our first do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mal, from their wolf an­ces­tors. Dogs evolved from wolves that had be­gun to as­so­ciate with peo­ple even be­fore farm­ing be­gan, per­haps drawn by the food the hu­mans left be­hind.

The new study tracked the spread of spe­cific cat DNA mark­ers over long dis­tances through time, a sign that peo­ple had taken cats with them. Re­sults were re­leased by the jour­nal Na­ture Ecol­ogy & Evo­lu­tion.

The study “strength­ens and re­fines pre­vi­ous work,” said Car­los Driscoll of the Wildlife In­sti­tute of In­dia. The ex­ten­sive sam­pling of cat DNA go­ing back so far in time is un­prece­dented, he said.

Re­searchers also looked for a ge­netic vari­ant that pro­duces the blotchy coat pat­tern typ­i­cal of mod­ern-day do­mes­tic cats, rather than the tiger-like stripes seen in their wild cousins. It showed up more of­ten in sam­ples from af­ter the year 1300 than ear­lier ones, which fits with other ev­i­dence that the tabby cat mark­ings be­came com­mon by the 1700s and that peo­ple started breed­ing cats for their ap­pear­ance in the 1800s.

That’s late in the do­mes­ti­ca­tion of cats, in con­trast to horses, which were bred for their ap­pear­ance early on, Geigl said.

An­cient dis­per­sals

Most of the study fo­cused on the an­cient dis­per­sals of cats. In the DNA sam­ples an­a­lyzed, one ge­netic sig­na­ture found first in the Asian por­tion of Turkey — and per­haps once car­ried by some Fer­tile Cres­cent cats — showed up more than 6,000 years ago in Bul­garia.

That in­di­cates cats had been taken there by boat with the first farm­ers col­o­niz­ing Europe, Geigl said. It also ap­peared more than 5,000 years ago in Ro­ma­nia, as well as around 3,000 years ago in Greece.

A sec­ond ge­netic sig­na­ture, first seen in Egypt, had reached Europe be­tween the first and fifth cen­turies, as shown by a sam­ple from Bul­garia. It was found in a sev­enth-cen­tury sam­ple from a Vik­ing trad­ing port in north­ern Europe, and an eighth­cen­tury sam­ple from Iran.

The dis­per­sal of the cats across the Mediter­ranean was prob­a­bly en­cour­aged by their use­ful­ness in con­trol­ling ro­dents and other pests on ships, the re­searchers said.

AP PHOTO/THIBAULT CAMUS

In this photo dated Fri­day, June 16, 2017, re­searcher Eva-Maria Geigl works on a cat mandible in her lab­o­ra­tory, in Paris, France. A DNA study reached back thou­sands of years to track that con­quest and found ev­i­dence of two ma­jor dis­per­sals from the Mid­dle East, in which peo­ple ev­i­dently took cats with them.

AP PHOTO

In this photo dated Fri­day, June 16, 2017, re­searcher Eva-Maria Geigl works in her lab­o­ra­tory, in Paris, France. A DNA study reached back thou­sands of years to track that con­quest and found ev­i­dence of two ma­jor dis­per­sals from the Mid­dle East, in which peo­ple ev­i­dently took cats with them “They are di­rect wit­nesses of the sit­u­a­tion in the past,’’ said Eva-Maria Geigl of the Jac­ques Monod In­sti­tute in Paris. She and col­leagues also looked at 28 mod­ern feral cats from Bul­garia and east Africa.

AP PHOTO

This Wed­nes­day, May 23, 2012 file photo shows the sar­coph­a­gus for Prince Thut­mose’s cat at an ex­hibit in Seat­tle. A DNA study reached back thou­sands of years to track the spread of do­mes­ti­cated cats through the an­cient hu­man world and found ev­i­dence of two ma­jor dis­per­sals from the Mid­dle East, in which peo­ple ev­i­dently took cats with them. Ge­netic sig­na­tures the fe­lines had on those jour­neys are still seen in most mod­ern-day breeds.

AP PHOTO

In a Fri­day, Nov. 14, 2014 file photo, Elsa, a kit­ten, re­cov­ers at the Den­ver Dumb Friends League an­i­mal shel­ter, in Den­ver. A DNA study reached back thou­sands of years to track the spread do­mes­ti­cated cats through the an­cient hu­man world and found ev­i­dence of two ma­jor dis­per­sals from the Mid­dle East, in which peo­ple ev­i­dently took cats with them. Ge­netic sig­na­tures the fe­lines had on those jour­neys are still seen in most mod­ern­day breeds.

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