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THE ancestry of the world’s household cats can be traced to just five lineages which lived alongside ancient settlers in the Fertile Crescent, an area stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf.
The earliest archaeological evidence for cat domestication dates to 9,500 years ago, when cats were thought to have been kept as pets in parts of Cyprus.
But the researchers believe it started 3,000 years earlier, with the family feline having broken ranks with its wild relatives as long as 130,000 years ago.
Unlike pigs, cows and sheep, which were domesticated for agriculture, and horses and donkeys, which were exploited to pull farming equipment, cats began co-existing beside humans by feeding on mice, rats and other pests that infested the grain stores of the first farmers.
A team of scientists led by David Macdonald at the wildlife conservation research unit at Oxford University, UK, analysed genetic samples from 979 cats from the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and China.
The researchers focused on DNA in the cats’ mitochondria, the tiny power-generating structures found in cells that contain their own genetic material and are inherited only down the maternal line.
The cats fell into distinct groups, one of which included all domestic cats and the near eastern wildcat, suggesting the two were linked. The other cats fell into four groups including the European wildcat, the central Asian wildcat, the sub-Saharan African wildcat and the Chinese desert cat.
Carlos Driscoll, a scientist on the study, which was published in Science, said: “What our work shows is that cats were not domesticated anywhere else in the world, but that they became pets for people living in the Fertile Crescent before being carried to other parts of the world by humans.”
The Fertile Crescent gains its name from land irrigated by the waters of the Nile, Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates, where hunter- gatherers first began to settle. Different civilisations occupied the region, including the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians.
The project, which has taken more than six years, began as an attempt to identify genetic differences between the Scottish wildcat and other native British species. The information will help conservationists develop more effective strategies to protect rare species, including the wildcat.
By Ian Sample