How Humans Domesticated Cats

Given how most cats never seem to leave their wildness behind them, it’s hard to remember that they’re technically domesticated. Humans have had some sort relationship with felines for thousands of years (the earlier known evidence being 9,500 years old). But how did we manage to (somewhat) keep them around? The Atlantic reports on a new study that sheds some light on this odd but enduring relationship:

[N]ew archaeological evidence from China, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, documents for the first time a chain of events that forged the relationship between human and feline.

The story begins with agriculture. About 5,560-5,280 years ago in the Shaanxi region of central China, humans were experiencing an agricultural boom. “It’s early, but it’s not the earliest farming in China,” the paper’s co-author, Fiona B. Marshall of Washington University, told me. “It’s from the time when farming really took off, when it was successful.”

They had small villages, with clusters of homes, cemeteries, and communal areas. They kept pigs and dogs and grew crops, primarily millet but a bit of rice, too, which they kept in ceramic vessels.

Now, these farmers had a bit of a problem: rodents. Archaeologists at the village of Quanhucun found an ancient rodent burrow that led right into an ancient grain storage pit. Storage vessels found at the village feature angles and slippery surfaces, design elements that seem to indicate an intention to protect the contents from thieving zokors. Rodent bones from the site contain evidence of millet consumption. “Clearly those rodents were eating the farmers’ grains,” Marshall said.

But the farmers had some help in their battle against the rodents: cats.

In essence there was a symbiotic relationship, which is largely the basis for most other domesticated animals. But it gets more interesting:

“It’s very hard to find, archaeologically, exactly what relationship caused domestication,” she said. “Usually we can find the time or the place. It’s been speculated that for modern cat behavior that cats were attracted to early farmers, but it wasn’t known for sure. But what this shows us is, yes, there was food for ancient cats in ancient farming villages, and that they helped the farmers out, making it a mutualistic relationship, by eating rodents.”

Cats, Marshall explained, are very hard to find archaeologically, in part because humans do not tend to eat them. “What we mostly excavate from ancient homes and villages is the garbage. And we’re just not going to find many cats,” she said. Furthermore, it was a surprise to come across cat bones in China, as most of the existing evidence shows early cats in Egypt and around the eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, modern genetics has shown that today’s house cats are more closely to related to Middle Eastern wildcats than any other. Research is still being done on the DNA of the Shaanxi cat bones to determine whether there is any relationship, perhaps via an early trans-Asian trade route, between these ancient cats and the popular pet.

Furthermore, this research highlights just how complex and nuanced the process of “domestication” really is, and how we must subsequently change our mentality towards animals in general and pets in particular.

Because cat domestication was a response to agricultural development, house cats are a much more recent creation than domesticated dogs, which first started hanging around hunter-gatherer hunting sites, long before agriculture. Wild wolves were likely attracted to the meat that humans hunted and, then, “people found them useful either to give alarm or to help in hunting.” This may have happened as many as 10,000 or even 20,000 years ago, Marshall says.

But, as for cats, this process is what scientists call a “commensal” pathway to domestication. Unlike cows or sheep, which evolved from wild animals that humans hunted, dogs and cats came into a mutually beneficial relationship with humans through food. Nothing about the process was intentional; no human set out to try to domesticate a cat or a dog and make it into a pet, but a chain reaction was set off by a human practice, and one thing led to another, and our pets today are the result.

Is domestication, then, in a sense, natural? Marshall says that the modern understanding of domestication complicates any sense of a stark line between domesticated and wild. “The idea of domestication comes out of 19th-century thinking,” she told me. “At that point, Darwin was thinking about Victorian animal breeding, which was very much: You take a male, you take a female, you breed intensively, and you change the animal very intentionally.”

But that’s not what happened with cats nor dogs. There are animal responses to humans, and human responses to animals. There is a relationship, centered around food, in which both species—human and feline—react and adapt over time.

In short, we and our feline friends (as well as our canine ones) just sort of fell into each other over a long period of time for various complex but mutually beneficial reasons. There wasn’t any clear rhyme or reason to it — it just sort of happened. Very interesting stuff.

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