Cat domestication may have started in China
2013-12-17 0:00

By Akshat Rathi | Descrier

There has been much debate about how cats went from hunting in the wild to a much-loved pet. That is because we know little about their domestication. Now researchers have found the earliest case of cat domestication, which happens to be in China, along with the first direct evidence of how it may have happened.

The oldest record of a cat’s association with humans comes from Cyprus where, about 9,500 years ago, a young wildcat was buried with a human. Egyptian art and cat mummies reveal that, by 4,000 years ago, cats had become loved pets. So it is clear that domestication happened in between these two dates. But many questions remains: how, where and when did it happen?

In a new study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Yaowu Hu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St Louis, and their colleagues try to answer those questions. “We have never before been able to show the nature of the relationship that resulted in domestication, especially for an animal that is solitary like cats and so rare in archaeological sites. So it was surprising to be able to document this at all,” Marshall said.

Like most evolutionary adaptations, domestication of animals can happen in multiple ways. A mutually-beneficial relationship can drive small changes that lead to a permanent change in behaviour, with or without direct human meddling. Or it could be that a prey’s numbers dwindled because of excessive hunting, which forced humans to come up with smarter animal management ideas, such as herding, that led to domestication.

The latter happened to sheep, goats and cattle. The former it was thought must have happened to cats, dogs and pigs. And thanks to Hu and Marshall, we now have evidence in case of cats. It comes from Quanhucun, a site in central China, that was a human settlement about 6,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered houses, storage pits, pottery, and some floral and faunal remains there, but few human burials. Piecing all the evidence together makes a compelling case for how domestication of cats may have happened.


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