Theories on the Domestication of Cats
The Beginning of Domestication Studies
Before we even begin to understand where the domestic cat came from we must first understand where domestication research started. So here is a breif summary of a very grand accidental experiment which has changed the scientific world's thinking. In 1959 a silver fox farm started an unwitting experiment on domestication. They started to breed only foxes who showed the most people-friendly temperament in order to encourage this docility in future offspring. No one could have predicted what came next...In the next fourty years the tame foxes started to show physical signs of domestication. White fur started to sprout where there wasn't supposed to be any white and some of them started to get floppy ears. This made them useless for the fur trade but invaluable to the scientific world. It was at this time scientists started to track down the domestic heritage of dogs (trying to prove if they came from wolves as they previously had theorized or if foxes, jackals, coyotes, and other canids may have had a paw in the domestic dog's lineage.) Much research was done, and is still being done, in this field but what about cats? It seems we have not put so much attention into figuring them out. Where are they from?
Small Wild Cat Species
There is currently a worldwide movement by exotic pet breeders to create new breeds of cats by crossing them to various wild small cat species to create hopefully docile hybrids. In most of these instances not only did the cats breed successfully but they had viable offspring. This is important to know because not all similar animals can be cross bred and some that can be produce mules (the proper term for a hybrid that is unable to produce offspring of it's own.) It is also important to know because we do not know from which wild cat species domestic cats originally descended from and there is a strong possibility that one of these felines being used for hybridization may in fact be the species responsible for giving birth to the domestic cat in the first place. Currently breeders have produced offspring breeding their domestics to servals, caracals, bobcats, European wildcats, sand cats, Geoffrey's cats, Asian leopard cats, African golden jungle cats, oncillas, black-footed cats, rusty spotted cats, Margays, fishing cats, and probably a number of others. So which of these is the most likely candidate and could more than one be responsible? We really don't know as not enough research has been done, however I would like to put my own theories down.
Evidence of the First Domestic Cats
Most people think that domestic cats originated in Egypt when the Ancient Egyptians were worshipping the little beasties. However worshipping animals suggests they have been around for quite awhile, at least before living memory. Though there have always been people who have believed that domestic cats predated the 3-4,000 year records of them in Egypt they didn't have much proof until recently.
In 2004 an interesting discovery was unearthed in Cyprus, an island off of Greece. It had been known that cats were brought to Cyprus during the Neolithic age 10-11,000 years ago but no one could prove that these cats were tame or even brought on purpose. There was always the vague possibility that cats could have been stowaways on the ships and boats that brought the people over or were some of the wild animals intentionally brought over like the fox. However proof of their domestication came in the form of a human grave. Like most Neolithic graves in the area the person was surrounded by objects used in life and oddly enough, the skeleton of a cat. The cat was only 40 millimeters away from the person and it's theorized it either carried religious significance or was the pet of the human. It showed no visible forms of trauma on the skeleton and the cause of it's demise is unknown. Still it's intriguing. Looking further into the past researchers found clusters of cave paintings in Asia depicting small cats but it's impossible to know if they were domestic or wild.
It's important to know where cats were first domesticated in order to guess from which species they originated from. The cat found in Cyprus was not a native species, it was a wildcat. Wildcats are native to the mainland of Europe, Asia, and Africa. They are probably the most numerous and widespread small cat species around at the time which makes them likely candidates for domestication. Interestingly enough they are also one of the few wild species of feline today that are not in any danger of going extinct anytime soon.
Dogs were thought to have domesticated themselves from wolves who ate the scraps of human hunts (growing more tame through successive generations.) Pinning down why cats would have been domesticated, and if it was intentional on the humans' part, has been a bit trickier but most believe they were probably in a similar circumstance. Instead of feeding off of humans' table scraps they likely lost their fear of humans by encroaching on their agricultural settlements in order to take full advantage of the populous mouse and rat populations. Mice and rats in the wild are not nearly as populous or easy to find as those living in and around human settlements. The cats probably didn't take long to figure this out and humans probably encouraged the cats to stick around for the obvious benefits of protecting their crops.
Museum Curator Speaks About the Oldest Domesticated Cat Remains Ever Discovered
Understanding the Importance of Color
Color often plays an integral role in domestic animals. Earlier I used the silver foxes as an example, stating how they went from their wild coloration to birthing pups with more and more white on them in successive generations. This white "overspotting" gene masks whatever color the animal should be and is one of the two genes generally associated with the domestication of small mammals. The other gene is the albino gene. Of course many domestic cats have white on them but few people are aware that the albino gene is even possible in cats. Indeed it is and it's very prevalent! Of course few people have seen the severest form of albinoism in cats, that is the form that disallows any production of melanin, creating an animal with stark white fur, pink skin, and light pink eyes. However these animals do crop up from time to time just as they do in all other species of animals. The only reason these cats aren't more common is probably because humans as of yet haven't found the trait to be attractive (and tried to reproduce it for future generations.)
Despite the rarity of true albinos other albino mutations are everywhere. Blue eyes are generally a form of lesser albinoism in cats. White cats with blue eyes are the obvious examples and they can be seen in many breeds. Another mutation can cause one blue eye and one eye of a different color, but the most common albino mutation currently being encouraged are pointed cats, that is cats with markings like a Siamese. These are complicated albinos, in that they are animals that both express a lesser albino gene AND a black gene. If it weren't for the albino gene these cats would be solid black in color. As such Siamese are likely not the first cat breed (as black would have also had to been around at the time.)
The other very important gene is one we don't know in domestic cats, it's the gene of the color markings of its wild ancestor. Since we do not know which cat species is responsible for domestic cats we do not know what the "normal" color mutation is, however it's long been theorized to be the tabby gene. To make this all the more complicated there isn't one tabby gene but at least four separate tabby genes, each bringing with them their own complications. The first is the one that creates stripes on said cat, called the mackerel tabby gene. This would likely be the gene contributed by the wildcat and all of it's subspecies on three separate continents. A second tabby gene causes spotting, ironically called the spotted tabby gene. It has been found most frequently when domestics are hybridized with spotted species such as the Asian leopard cat and the Geoffrey's cat. Interestingly enough this is the gene responsible for Egyptian Maus, an ancient cat breed and contender for the oldest record. A third kind of tabby is the ticking gene. This gene causes cats to have the variegated color variations reminiscent of cougars and lynx. This gene is seen in several breeds, most notably of which is the Abyssinian, long rumored to be serious competitor for the world's oldest cat breed. If Abyssinians are indeed the oldest cat breed then domestic cats are likely from a species with similar coloring, perhaps jungle cats, caracals, bobcats, or lynx. Finally the fourth tabby gene may be the most telling, this is called the classic tabby gene. This gene causes swirling patterns or horizontal stripes on a cat. This pattern is seen in numerous cat breeds that predated the current trend in hybridization. This is important because it's most commonly seen in Bengals, a cross between domestics and Asian leopard cats. It appears to be a complex gene (or set of genes) caused by the intermingling of mackerel tabby genes and spotted tabby genes. What's the significance of this? It suggests that a both a spotted species and a mackerel species of cat may have been at least partially responsible for contributing to the domestic cat gene pool.
So Where Did Domestic Cats Come From??
The simple answer is, no one knows the whole story as of yet. However, studies have been started testing the DNA of wild cats and domestic cats. It was found that many of the more than 400 cats and wildcats tested had very similar DNA. In fact the Asian and African wildcats seem to have been the founding stock for most of the domestic cats testded. However not all of the domestic cats matched this DNA profile and cats appear to have predated the Roman Empire on the British Isles, suggesting they were not imported there as domestics by humans. This and the evidence of four separate tabby genes leads one to believe that the domestication of the cat doesn't seem to be as staright forward as the domestication of dogs (who appear to have only come from wolves and no other species.)
If I were to guess I'd say domestic cats are likely the result of numerous domestication events, in different areas, at different times, and perhaps even with different species. We know the Ancient Egyptians kept domestic cats in their company and we also know that several wild cat species may have been kept in palaces as royal pets. Many small cat species are native to Egypt including the wildcat, caracals, sand cat, and swamp cats. We also know that the ancient Egyptians had established trade with the Roman Empire which spanned over a vast area encompassing many other small cat species. The Romans were known to have wild animals shipped in from Africa to slaughter during their gladiatorial games. I think it'd be a bit naïve to think the Egyptians never received any native animals from the Roman Empire at any point. If domestic cats were indeed the result of only one species of wild cat then it's probably here where their story got infinitely more interesting. It is, after all, in Egypt where many of the odd tabby genes show up. Could this be because Egyptians were doing their own genetic experiments with hybrids? That would explain how we ended up with four tabby genes!
Will we ever know where domestic cats came from, when and why? It's possible. To know anything for certain researchers will have to take the DNA of all the prospective species and calculate which ones are most similar. From there piecing together the rest of the story may become easier.
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