December 17, 2013
Cat Domestication May Have Started In China 5,000 Years Ago
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
According to new research published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cats were drawn to human settlements near the ancient Chinese village of Quanhucun more than 5,000 years ago, a development which may have eventually led to their domestication.
"Our data suggest that cats were attracted to ancient farming villages by small animals, such as rodents that were living on the grain that the farmers grew, ate and stored,” said study author Fiona Marshall a professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
The research team said their findings display the first step toward the processes of cat domestication.
"Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats [and humans]," Marshall said. "Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits."
In the study, the researchers used radiocarbon dating and isotopic analyses on eight bones from at least two cats found at the Quanhucun archeological site. The study team also analyzed the bones of dogs, deer and other wildlife excavated from the site.
Carbon isotopes in the bones indicated that rodents, domesticated dogs and pigs living near Quanhucun were eating millet, but the deer were not. The analyses also found that cats were preying on animals that lived on farmed millet, most likely the rodents. Archeological evidence has shown that the ancient farmers living in the village had problems with rodents raiding their grain stores, suggesting conditions were right for a commensal relationship with local cats to develop.
The study team found other evidence that suggested a growing relationship between cats and humans, such as one of the village cats surviving well into old age and another showing signs that it scavenged human food or was fed.
Recent genetic studies have shown that most of today’s domestic cats around the world are descended from the Near Eastern Wildcat, which is native to Western Asia and Africa. Marshall said there is no DNA evidence pointing to the cats at Quanhucun being descendants of the Near Eastern Wildcat. If the future research showed that they are indeed descendants – it would indicate they were domesticated outside the region and then later introduced.
"We do not yet know whether these cats came to China from the Near East, whether they interbred with Chinese wild-cat species, or even whether cats from China played a previously unsuspected role in domestication," Marshall said.
Ancient archaeological sites rarely produce cat remains and little is known about the process behind their domestication. For years, scientists have speculated that they were first domesticated in ancient Egypt 4,000 years ago. However, more recent research had pointed to the first steps of domestication taking place much earlier, such as the discovery of a wild cat remains in a 10,000-year-old human burial site in Cyprus.