What do we know about the origins of domestic cats?

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The history and evolution of domestic cats still generates many debates in the scientific community. There is no consensus among experts on how our adorable kittens have originated. Even today, it is still debated whether the domestic cat should be classified as an independent species or continue to be considered as one of the subspecies of the wild cat.

The domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) is a species of a small carnivorous mammal of the Felidae family, domesticated by humans. The current name in many languages ​​comes from the Latin term catus, even though the term originally referred to wild cats. The term felis was used for Domestic cats in Latin.

As a result of genetic mutations, interbreeding, and artificial selection, there are numerous cat breeds. Some, such as the Sphynx or Peterbald breed, are hairless. Other breeds lack a tail, like Manx cats, and some have atypical coloration, like the so-called blue cats. As of 2019, The International Cat Association (TICA) recognizes 71 standardized breeds, the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) recognizes 44, and the Fédération Internationale Féline (FIFe) recognizes 43.

Origins of domestic cats

Today, cats are the second most popular pet globally. In 2016 GfK conducted an online survey of over 27,000 consumers aged 15 or older in 22 countries. While dogs are the most popular pet globally, cats are second, owned by 23% of respondents. But how cats were domesticated?

Last common ancestor

Today’s cats share a common ancestor that is likely related to the Miacis. These animals are the oldest known group of primitive carnivores that are known today, from which all modern carnivorous mammals, including felines, have probably evolved. These first ancestors of the cat would have the size similar to a [Genet] with a long tail and an elongated body. They lived during the Upper Cretaceous period, about 60 million years ago. Few fossils of these animals remain in the Northern Hemisphere.

The evolution of felines

Some millions of years later, the members of miacis begin to differentiate morphologically, giving rise to different groups of carnivorous mammals. Unfortunately, the origin of felines is poorly documented in fossil records since the ancestors of felines normally lived in tropical areas. Those areas do not offer good conditions for fossilization.

Likewise, it is assumed that the first species related to felines would have been proailurus, a small arboreal carnivorous mammal that lived in Europe about 40 million years ago. During the Oligocene period, the first felines were divided into two large groups: Nimravidae and Felidae. Later, there was proailurus, from which the extinct species closest to modern felines, pseudaelurus descended. It is estimated that this animal appeared for the first time about 20 million years ago and disappeared about 8 million years ago.

Later, during the Miocene, which began about 23 million years ago, pseudaelurus had already diversified significantly and its population expanded to Africa and America. The specific morphological and genetic roots of modern felines would have started about 10 million years ago, when they separated from pseudaelurus_,_ having adapted to the steppes and savannas, where they found great availability of food due to the variety of herbivorous animals that lived there. In this same period, the long canine felines would emerge, which would become extinct around 10,000 BC.

Modern felines

Modern small felines belonging to the genus Felis, such as wild cats, took a little longer to inhabit the earth’s surface. The appeared for the first time about 5 million years ago on the Asian continent and expanded to other continents at the same period. However, they did not reach Oceania or Madagascar.

In 2006 several analyzes of the sex chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA of different species of modern felines, including the domestic cat, have been carried out. Added to the many paleontological investigations, their results suggest that the genetic lineage that would give rise to the domestic cat would have been separated from other small cats about 3.4 million years ago, in the forests and deserts of the Mediterranean basin.

Domesticated cats

The zoologist Carl von Linnaeus first described the domestic cat as Felis catus in 1758 in his Systema naturae. However, his position on the classification of living beings changed greatly over the years.

In 2017, DNA found in archaeological sites revealed that the origins of the domestic cat are in the Middle East. First domesticated cats lived in coexistence with the first farmers about 10,000 years ago. The same analysis also revealed that most of these ancient cats had stripes, while spotted cats were rare until the Middle Ages.

Types of wild cats

Currently, six subspecies of wild cats are recognized:

  1. Felis silvestris: better known as the European wildcat, it lives in Europe and the Anatolian Peninsula.
  2. Felis silvestris lybica: popularly called the African wild cat, it lives in North Africa and Western Asia up to the Aral Sea.
  3. Felis lybica cafra: this is a South African wild cat, which inhabits the sub-Saharan region of the African continent.
  4. Felis lybica ornata: known as the Asian wild cat, it is found in Central and East Asia, Pakistan, and northwestern India.
  5. Felis bieti: also known as Chinese desert cat and Chinese steppe cat, found mostly in northern China.
  6. Felis silvestris catus: the domestic cats, which have spread throughout the world, being the feline with the greatest geographic distribution and morphological diversity.

The shared morphological traits and some genetic research led to the assumption that domestic cats were descendants of the African wildcat (Felis lybica). In addition, the more sociable and less aggressive nature of the African wild cats could have facilitated their coexistence and adaptation to human lifestyle. In 2007, a detailed molecular study showed that domestic cats are indeed related to the African wild cat, from which it would have been separated approximately 130,000 years ago. A relatively short time in relation to the evolution of felines.

Where did the domestication of cats begin?

Much of the fossil remains found and analyzed seemed to point to the fact that the domestication of cats began in Ancient Egypt, around 2,000 BC. However, recent discoveries pose new challenges and controversies regarding the history of the domestic cat. In 2004, the remains of a cat that had been buried next to its owner was discovered in Cyprus, which probably lived between 7,500 and 7,000 BC.

DNA analysis

In mid-2017, extensive research supported by the University of Leuven (Belgium) was published. The DNA analysis revealed that all domestic cats descended from the African wildcat (Felis lybica). It is a wildcat species native to Africa, West and Central Asia up to Rajasthan in India and Xinjiang in China.

Researchers analyzed DNA of teeth, nails, skin and hair belonging to more than 200 cats found at archaeological sites in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Their analysis revealed that the oldest fossil remains are between 10 and 9 thousand years old. These fossils were found in the Middle East area. Researchers believe that African wild cats started to approach peasant villages after a proliferation of mice in grain storage.

Consequently, it could have been the cats themselves that had taken the initiative to get closer to humans when they spotted an abundant supply of food near their communities. In turn, farmers realized that cats can help to fight rodents, and may have begun to offer felines other comforts, such as shelter and warmth.

However, it is still unknown whether domesticated cats have reached Egypt due to migration of farmers from the Middle East. It is also possible that a second independent domestication process had actually taken place in Ancient Egypt, starting with African wild cats that lived in the surroundings of this great civilization.

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