Cats first befriended humans over 5,300 years ago in China

New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences might be enough to make even Grumpy Cat smile.

The study reveals that the longstanding friendship between household cats and human beings may have started more than five thousand years ago, when the ancestors of today’s domesticated cats first left their mark – or paw prints – on Quanhucun, an ancient Chinese village populated by farmers.

Cat call

According to study co-author Fiona Marshall, the domestication of cats can be traced to about 5,300 years ago. Ancient cats were drawn to the farming village because of a rodent problem that promptly turned into an all-you-can-eat buffet for them.

“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," explained Marshall, a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis.

The study, led by paleontologist Yaowu Hu and his colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, revealed that the prehistoric farming village was bedeviled and raided by zokors, 10-inch long rodents that consumed the grain harvested and stored by the farmers.

A chemical analysis of various animal bones in the area showed that zokors subsisted on the same millet-rich diet as the humans, dogs, and pigs residing there. Furthermore, an ancient rodent burrow was discovered in a storage pit, as well as a few ceramic, rodent-proof vessels for storing grain. This led the researchers to conclude that the Chinese farmers took extra measures to keep zokors out of their grain stores, indicating that they really did have a rat problem on their hands.

Additionally, carbon isotope tests conducted on two cats found in the vicinity showed that the felines had traces of the same millet-rich chemical signatures present in the zokor bones that were analyzed. This supports the theory that the felines were indeed preying on the rodent pests.

Living in purr-fect harmony

However, the findings also suggested that the relationship between cats and Quanhucun farmers may have developed into more than just a simple exchange of food and pest control services.

Biometric analysis revealed that both cats were closer in size to domesticated cats than wildcats, revealing that the two may have become semi-permanent residents of the town. One of the cats appeared to have a diet made up of more grains and less meat, suggesting that it probably scavenged food from farmers instead of hunting other animals. Meanwhile, the other showed signs that it may have grown old in the town.

"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," said Marshall.

Then and meow

As cats tend to be a rarity in archeological sites, there are huge questions revolving around the history of feline domestication that still need to be answered.

Initially, the domestication of cats was thought to have stemmed from Ancient Egypt some 4,000 years ago, where cats (known as “mau”) were worshipped as gods and regarded as important symbols in society. However, the oldest evidence to date suggesting close ties between cats and humans is an almost 10,000-year old grave containing a wildcat buried with a human.

Recent studies on cat DNA present the notion that almost all of the world’s domesticated cats – estimated to be around 600 million – are descendants of Near Eastern wildcats. Marshall clarified, though, that there is currently no DNA evidence to conclude that the Quanhucun cats came from the Near East as well.

“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," said Marshall.

Researchers in France and China are presently working on determining the Quanhucun cats’ true place of origin. — TJD, GMA News

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