Cats arrived on the Internet in meme form in 1998, and have generally had the run of the place since then; but tracking the actual, physical global takeover of domesticated cats has long proven tricky. No one knows quite how domesticated domestic cats really are, there has long been uncertainty as to how they traveled, and academics looking to research the issue were subject to an apparent funding bias that favors canis over felis.
One team of researchers however has managed to surmount academia’s dim view of our feline friends, and conducted a study of mitochondrial DNA extracted from the remains of 209 cats ranging in age from 15,000 years-old up to the eighteenth century in an effort to determine the cats’ path to domesticity (or, something close).
The samples were extracted from 30 archaeological sites across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, covering the Mesolithic period, when humans were still hunter-gatherers, through to the relatively recent past and via a great deal in between.
The study, which was presented by Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, at the 7th International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, UK, constitutes the first large-scale study of ancient cat DNA. As Geigl said in a statment:
We don’t know the history of ancient cats. We do not know their origin, we don’t know how their dispersal occurred.
Previous smaller studies have determined that humans and cats have been hanging out in close proximity since the dawn of agriculture, around 12,000 years ago, and that the Ancient Egyptians began to tame, cohabit and be buried with cats sometime around 6,000 years ago.
What Geigl’s study shows is that global cat populations exploded in two phases. First, cats began to make their presence known around Middle Eastern agricultural communities, and expanded to the eastern Mediterranean, as grain stockpiles attracted rats, and subsequently wild cats. Geigl suggests that the cats’ utility may have led to their being domesticated.
Thousands of years later, Egyptian cats began to make their travels through Eurasia and Africa, presumably again for their rodent capturing abilities–only this time put to use of ships. Indeed, perhaps the most extraordinary thing uncovered by this study was the finding of cat remains with the Egyptian maternal DNA lineage at a Viking site dating to between the eighth and eleventh century ad in northern Germany. That’s right; there were Viking cats.
Geigl hopes to continue her extensive research into the genomic history of the house cat, but, as she emphasized in a statement, her ambitions rather depend on funding (which is all going to the dogs).