DNA shows early spread of cats in human world

Science Says: DNA shows early spread of cats in human world

Even to this day, domestic cats closely resemble their wild cousins in terms of body build, function and behaviour. An global team of researchers found that cats' dispersal happened in two waves, first from the Fertile Crescent and later from Egypt. First discovered in cats living on the Asian side of Turkey, this was then traced to Bulgaria, some 6,000 years ago.

The truth about cats and dogs is this: despite being the two species that humans are most likely to have as pets, Rex and Ruffles had very different paths from the wild to our couches.

The study has its roots in an old graveyard in southern Egypt. Researchers say they've been domesticated for more than 10,000 years. Then tabby cats spread out rapidly into Europe and Asia. Results were released Monday by the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

"This evidence explains, for example, the presence of [a cat with an Egyptian lineage] at the Viking port of Ralswiek, dated between the Seventh and 11th century AD".

A tale hidden in ancient cat DNA suggests cats were probably first domesticated in the Middle East. It's likely that cats lived around humans for many centuries before succumbing to the lure of the fire and the cushion, and coming in from the cold to become true companions to humans.

Previously, researchers had sequenced the DNA of a couple of mummified cats from ancient Egypt, where the animals used to be treated like royalty and millions of such mummies abound.

The team analyzed DNA from mitochondria, a structure known as the cell's powerhouse, which contains its own separate genetic code. Still, Egyptian cats continued to "spread to most of the Old World". Today, it may seem like cat owners are the ones in control.

The new study strengthens the idea that felines were already in a domestication process more than 9,000 years ago. Today, cats still share human homes and food, and for thousands of years have worked alongside farmers and sailors to eradicate vermin.

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But that's only half the story. This is also illustrated by Egyptian murals: they always depict striped cats. However, despite the theory, scientists are still no clear opinion about the origin of the Egyptian domestic cat.

Apparently Egyptian cats were especially popular, perhaps due to their friendly dispositions. That ability may have extended to breeding cats. From Egypt, the felines rapidly expanded across the rest of Africa and Eurasia. "They turbocharged the tameness process". But over the centuries the felines begin to appear in more domestic contexts, hunting birds with people, wearing collars, and-by 1500 B.C.E. -sitting under chairs at the dinner table. That rapid spread may indicate that cats traveled by boat. Egyptian cat obsession became so intense it mutated into a political issue, leading to a local ban on cat trading in Egypt as early as 1700 BCE.

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Credits: (Graphic) A. KItterman/Science; (Data) C. Ottoni et al. "This was when animal domestication was invented", Geigl said.

"The Egyptians were the first people to have the resources to do everything bigger and better", said Carlos Driscoll, from the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, who led the 2007 study, according to Science Magazine.

Either way, type A and type C cats eventually intermingled in Europe and beyond. That blotchiness, though present in 80 percent of house cats today, is recessive, and seldom seen in the wild. "And this paper gives clues to how that happened".

Scientists from the Royal Institute for natural Sciences of Belgium, together with colleagues from Institut Jacques Mono in Paris found that cats were domesticated almost ten thousand years in the middle East. "The cat was useful from the very beginning - it didn't have to be changed".

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