Were Cats Domesticated Twice?

Were Cats Domesticated Twice?

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In retrospect, the rise of cats was inevitable. A recent study found that Chinese farmers started domesticating leopard cats over 5000 years ago. If this is true, it would certainly indicate that cats, just like dogs, were domesticated at least twice โ€“ in China, and the Middle East. It also points to the fact that the rise of agriculture inevitably led to the rise of the domesticated house cat.

Who let the cat loose in my backyard?

Unlike dogs, cats played a greater hand in domesticating themselves, and if this is something that happened more than once, it indicates that a number of animals โ€“ from sheep to donkeys โ€“ might have been domesticated with little involvement from humans. The scientists involved in a previous study analyzed cat bones that were unearthed from a millet farming village in ancient China and found that all of them contained forms of nitrogen and carbon indicating that the cats ate small animals, most of whom sustained themselves on a grain-based diet. This supported the hypothesis that wild cats slunk into human farming settlements to hunt for mice and other rodents, and humans decided to keep them around to combat the threat of rodents.

The pawful truth

However, a big question remained to be solved. Were these cats in any way related to the Eastern wildcats, domesticated over 5000 years prior in the Middle East, which were the ancestors of todayโ€™s domesticated house cats? Or were they a completely different species altogether? If the former is true, then the domesticated cats most likely arrived in China from the Middle East through trade routes. If the latter is, then it implies that Chinese farmers embarked on a completely different domestication process, unaware of the previous efforts of their Middle Eastern counterparts.The latter is what the new findings seem to suggest. The scientists used geometric morphometrics, a technique that employs computers to take measurements of the shape and size of the bones from all angles, to study the mandibles of the unearthed cat bones. They concluded that all of the unearthed bones belonged to the leopard cat and not their Near Eastern counterparts.Many other animals could have also been domesticated in these ancient Chinese villages, but none of them had the advantage that the cats had as they were obsessed with killing all the small animals, which was a skill that was very useful to early farmers. Moreover, cats had a leg up as they were nocturnal. They could hunt all they want at night without having to worry about competition from their canine compadres, who were much more active during the day. Up until now, it was believed that pigs were the only animals that were domesticated twice. However, mounting evidence for at least two feline domestications, millennia apart, suggests that farming did give rise to the house cat as well.

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