Remains reveal domesticated cat species arose naturally in China, not imported

It’s theorized that humans first began to interact with what would become modern cats as early as the beginning of farming—some 10,800 years ago, around the Levant or Anatolia regions. It seems that cats were either attracted to or brought in specifically to take care of the mice that munched on crop stores.

Fast-forward a few millennia, and cats are the most common domesticated animals in the world, with more than 500 million felines currently available to sleep on laptops and claw your legs.

But the rise of cats in China is a bit more perplexing than this simple timeline. There is evidence of domesticated cats in China as far back as 5,500 years ago—but it’s long been unclear whether these cats were imported from the Near East, or whether they simply arose in China also thanks to the rise of agriculture.

Well, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE, we finally may have an answer.

The answer lies in the bones

A team of scientists principally from the Archéozoologie, Archéobotanique: Sociétés, Pratiques et Environnements laboratory (CNRS/MNHN), working with colleagues from the UK and China, examined sets of feline bones found in what used to be agricultural settlements in the Shaanxi province of China.

The bones date back to around 3,500 BCE, and researchers had previously been unable to identify which type of cats they were. The identity of the bones was key, as there are four kinds of small cat in China, but there has never been evidence of the subspecies from which all modern cats—including those in China—are descended: Felis silvestris lybica.

Showing these ancient bones were indeed F. s. lybica would strongly indicate the cats were “imported”; showing they were of another subspecies would show that cat domestication arose naturally in China.

DNA evidence was lacking in the bones, and the different forms of the four Chinese small cats are so similar in bone structure, it’s often impossible to perceive a difference between them. However, thanks to geometric morphometric analysis, which uses bone landmarks in lieu of linear measurements to define bone features, the team was able to identify the subspecies—and it wasn’t F. s. lybica.

Instead, it appears that the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis)—which is well known for its tendency to frequent areas with a strong human presence in China—gave rise to China’s first domesticated felines. The researchers hypothesized a similar mechanism to what happened in the Near East: Agriculture arose, rodents targeted grain stores, and cats came after the rodents. Eventually, cats decided to harass humans on a more permanent basis.

Oddly, however, it seems that these original cats in China didn’t stay; somehow, in the intervening 5,000 years, F. s. lybica replaced the leopard cat totally. In modern China, domesticated cats are only of the lybica subspecies. As to how or when this happened, the researchers are unsure—but hope it will be answered next.


Feature Image: Side view of a domestic cat skull from the Neolithic site of Wuzhuangguoliang (Shaanxi, 3200-2800 BC). (Credit: © J.-D. Vigne, CNRS/MNHN)