The domestic cat began populating households around the world 9,500-10,000 years ago, originating from a region that includes what is now Turkey. A second, stronger wave came 6,000-7,000 years later, this one out of Egypt. In time, the Egyptian cat overtook its ancient West Asian cousin in the lineage of modern domestic cats, a new study has found.
A team of scientists analysed ancient DNA of widespread archaeological cat remains, including mummies, and found that Egyptian and West Asian populations of the African wildcat, ancestor of all domestic cats, contributed to the gene pool of the domestic cat at different times. The dispersal gained momentum when the Egyptian cat spread across Africa, Europe and Africa, along human routes by land and sea.
An additional finding of the study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, was that the blotched tabby coat that characterises so many domestic cats is relatively new. Among the hundreds of cats studied, the oldest occurrence of the genetic mutation that causes the blotched tabby was in a cat from the Ottoman Empire in southwest Asia.
“Our data suggest that the blotched pattern appeared late in the history of cat domestication, indicating that humans started to select cats for visible traits quite late,” said Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at Institut Jacques Monod, Paris, and one of the authors of the study. “Indeed, most of the domestic fancy breeds described nowadays were created by human intervention only in the 19th century (the first exhibition of fancy breed cats took place in 1871 in London).”
A 2007 study published in Science had traced the domestication of cats to Western Asia. The current study explores their dispersal both from that stock and from Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians’ fascination with cats has long been evident from mummies and paintings, the oldest some 4,000 years ago. Long before that, the West Asian cat had already started its worldwide conquest. In Cyprus in 2004, the remains of a 9,500-year-old cat and a human were excavated from a tomb.
“The DNA of the Cyprus cat was not preserved well enough to define its genetic haplotype, but given the archaeological context it is believed that the cat was taken to Cyprus from the Near East,” said Thierry Grange, a molecular biologist at Institut Jacques Monod.
The dating of these remains coincides with the period when wildcats of Western Asia domesticated themselves, feeding on rats and scraps from farmers’ homes. By 6,400 years ago, their signature had reached Europe, with a Bulgarian cat showing mitochondrial DNA of a subtype associated with West Asian cats, followed by a Romanian cat from 5,200 years ago.
It was not until the 8th century BC that another DNA subtype, this one associated with Egyptian cats, started to appear in West Asian and European cats. Something about Egyptian cats obviously carried worldwide appeal, causing their subsequent spread. Remains of cats from 1,600-700 years ago showed the Egyptian DNA signature, which eventually outnumbered the West Asian signature in a number of countries, including Turkey.
One cat, found in a Red Sea port and dating back to a period between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, had an Indian connection. “Berenike was an Egyptian trading port where sailors went back and forth to India staying several months at either location,” said Claudio Ottoni, a forensic biomedical scientist at the University of Leuven, Belgium, and one of the authors of the study. “The Asian lineage that we found in one cat in Berenike was the Indian type, indicating hybridisation of the Egyptian cats with the local Indian wildcat.”