A new study suggests that ancient Egyptians were responsible for domesticating cats as we know them today. A group of researchers performed a genetic analysis of more than 200 ancient cats and found that even if the felines were domesticated outside Egypt, it was there where cats turned into domesticated animals.

The findings were published Monday in the journal Nature. Salima Ikram, an expert on ancient Egyptian animals and cat mummies at the American University in Cairo, said the idea that the Egyptians helped shape the modern cat makes perfect sense.

Image credit: Mausinthehouse.com
Image credit: Mausinthehouse.com

Researchers believe cats were domesticated in ancient Egypt

The study has its roots in an old graveyard in southern Egypt. In 2008, an archaezoologist named Wim Van Neer, from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, found the remains of six cats (a female, a male, and four kittens) that appeared to have been taken care by people around 6000 years ago. While the felines were younger than the Cyprus cat, the discovery made him wonder whether ancient Egyptians could have domesticated the modern cat.

“Scientists more or less forgot about Egypt after the Cyprus find,” said Van Neer, according to Science Magazine.

Van Neer gathered hundreds of cat specimens, including bones, teeth, and mummies from areas in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, dating from 7000 B.C.E to the 19th century C.E. He then assembled a team with more than two dozen researchers who drilled into the remains to search for mitochondrial DNA, genetic material inherited from the mother.

In 2007, other researchers analyzed DNA of the modern cats to show that all living domestic cats trace their ancestry to the Near Eastern wildcat. They found that this subspecies contains felines with five unique genetic signatures within their mitochondrial DNA.

“We mapped what we knew about the age and location of our ancient cats onto these signatures to figure out how the earliest cats spread out over time,” said Claudio Ottoni, a University of Oslo postdoc who performed the genetic analysis in the new study, according to Science Magazine.

Image credit: Madam Rafaèle / Garstangmuseum.wordpress.com
Image credit: Madam Rafaèle / Garstangmuseum.wordpress.com

Egyptians bred cats and selected the most sociable, speeding the tameness process

The researchers noted that the world’s first cats’ genetic signatures –mitochondrial type A- appeared for the first time around 9000 years ago in what is now Turkey. Archaeologists believe that around 10,000 years ago, wildcats in that region introduced themselves into early farming villages to hunt rodents and eventually self-domesticated into modern cats.

Around 6,500 years ago these type A cats started appearing in southeastern Europe, noted the researchers, and after that, the felines infiltrated the rest of Europe, Asia, and Africa. However, most of the Egyptian cat mummies have a different mitochondrial subtype, type C, which the team dated at around 800 B.C.E.

Type C cats also appear to have spread throughout the world, and by the fifth century C.E. they were found through Europe and the Mediterranean. The researchers added that during the first millennium C.E, these cats outnumbered type A cats two to one in areas like western Turkey. They believe that the ancient Egyptians may have caused this popularity.

“The Egyptians were the first people to have the resources to do everything bigger and better,” said Carlos Driscoll, from the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, who led the 2007 study, according to Science Magazine. “They turbocharged the tameness process.”

The researchers believe the Egyptians started breeding cats, and as they bred more and more, they probably selected the ones that were easiest to have around, that were more social and less territorial than their ancestors.

Source: Science Magazine