Scientists Discover How Cats Took Over the World

September 26, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

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DNA analysis reveals the intriguing history of feline domestication and expansion.

Ancient cats are helping scientists solve the longstanding mystery of how felines became domesticated.

At this year's International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist from the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, described her team’s large-scale effort to sequence DNA from 209 cats that lived between 15,000 and 300 years ago — a period beginning just before the agricultural revolution, when humans were still hunting and gathering.

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According to Nature News, Geigl’s team found that cat populations expanded in two waves. With the advent of farming in the Middle East, communities began to attract rodents, which in turn attracted wild cats. After farmers observed the benefits of having cats around, they likely started domesticating them.

Thousand of years later, cats descendants of those that had gained popularity in Egypt began to spread by sea to Eurasia and Africa. Cats would have helped seafarers by keeping ships rodent-free.

To obtain ancient cat DNA, the researchers gathered samples from more than 30 archaeological sites across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. They even found cat remains at a Viking site in northern Germany dated between A.D. 700 and A.D. 1000.

The team also made some interesting observations from their DNA analysis. For instance, they discovered that the mutation that gives tabby cats their distinctive coat patterns first appeared during the medieval period.

Geigl tells Nature News that funding for cat domestication research lags behind that available for dog domestication studies, which tend to be more popular among scientists — another research team at the symposium announced its new initiative to sequence DNA from more than 1,000 ancient canines.

But for now, the research conducted by Geigl and her team has already shed light on how ancient cats travelled far and wide, mingling at various time with farmers, mariners, and Vikings.

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