Spot the cat

A new paper, “The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world”

In order to trace the origins of the domestic cat, the authors examined DNA of 230 ancient and modern cats from Europe, north and east Africa, and southwest Asia, spanning around 9,000 years, from the Mesolithic period to the twentieth century CE.

The first major [domestication] event was probably in the Fertile Crescent about 7,500 years ago, from wildcats originating in Anatolia. “Cats can then be seen moving with human populations as early as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, as farmers spread from the Near East into Europe, and also with seafaring communities,” […] “Cats appear to have traveled along maritime trade routes … The second major wave of domestication occurred in the Greek and Roman periods, when a fad for Egyptian cats led to a movement of domestic cats descended from North African Felis silvestris lybica to Europe. … “The fad for Egyptian cats very quickly spread through the ancient Greek and Roman world, and even much further afield [specifically] the presence of the Egyptian lineage IV-C1 [cats] at the Viking port of Ralswiek 7–11th century AD”.

The team also analysed one of the rare genetic markers of domestication in cats: the colouring of their fur. “The gene coding for spots and mottling is found only in domestic cats, while the fur of wildcats is always striped,” the authors said. “And here we stumbled on a surprise: spots only began to appear under the Ottoman Empire, between 500 and 1300 CE, becoming more common after 1300 both in the Ottoman Empire and in Europe. This is a very late development in relation to other species. … this phenomenon constitutes irrefutable evidence of selection by humans …”

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