Cat Domestication Traced to Early Chinese Farms

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The earliest evidence for cat domestication comes from Chinese farms dating to 5,300 years ago, a new study confirms.

While ancient Egyptians loved their felines, it looks like China beat Egypt as being the first to discover the merits of cats. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pinpoint the early Chinese village of Quanhucun as being the likely ground zero for cat domestication.

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“At least three different lines of scientific inquiry allow us to tell a story about cat domestication that is reminiscent of the old ‘house that Jack built’ nursery rhyme,” study co-author Fiona Marshall, a professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a press release.

“Our data suggest that cats were attracted to ancient farming villages by small animals, such as rodents that were living on the grain that the farmers grew, ate and stored.”

She continued, “Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats. Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits.”

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Marshall, study leader Yaowu Hu, and their colleagues analyzed eight bones from at least two cats excavated from the site. The researchers found that the cats were eating grain millet grown by the farmers. One of the cats was aged, revealing that it survived well in the village. Yet another ate so much human-grown grain that the researchers suspect it was fed.

The researchers also determined that farmers then were battling rodents, since they found an ancient rodent burrow into a grain storage pit and grain storage pots designed to be rodent proof. It probably didn’t take long for the farmers to figure out that the cats went after the rats and mice, so they were good animals to keep around.

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Analysis of dog and pig remains found that these animals were also eating millet, but deer at the site were not.

Cats must have carved a successful niche for themselves in a society that thrived on the widespread cultivation of the grain millet.

The felines at this time descended from the Near Eastern wildcat, which might have been the primary ancestor of all domesticated cats alive today.

“We do not yet know whether these cats came to China from the Near East, whether they interbred with Chinese wild-cat species, or even whether cats from China played a previously unsuspected role in domestication,” Marshall said.

(Image: Phil Roeder, Flickr)