Science

Cats chose humans very early: Archaeological tests upend common historical thinking

An unexpected, ancient cat discovery rewrites the history of your housepet

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Much like the behavior of cats, the origin of Felis catus is replete with mystery. While domestic cats are one of the most popular pets globally today, the process of how they came to be domesticated is not entirely understood — a situation made more complicated by the fact that cats still are not fully domesticated.

In a new study, scientists examined the relationship between humans and cats during the Neolithic Period to pinpoint when cats became pets. This study indicates that, in Europe, the road to becoming a housecat began when Near Eastern wildcats, the ancestor of domestic cats, followed early farmers to the continent.

The foundation of this study are Near Eastern wildcat bones dated to 4,200 to 2,300 BCE found in Poland — bones that the study team yearned to find, but never expected to actually discover.

Magdalena Krajcarz is the study's first author and a researcher at the Institute of Archeology at Nicolaus Copernicus University. She tells Inverse her interest in ancient cats was triggered by the discovery of a felid mandible from a cave in southern Poland, found within the archeological context of an ancient Celtic ritual.

Krajcarz started to search for data on the oldest cat remains in Europe and soon realized that solid evidence of these cats was sparse. She teamed up with geneticists, geologists, and other archeologists to screen any bones found during excavations, searching for cats. Ultimately, they found these "surprisingly early ones," from the Neolithic period.

"We expected to find cat remains not older than the beginning of the Common Era, because that was suggested by other archeological finds from Europe," Krajcarz explains. "The Neolithic age of these cats was something we didn't even consider as a hypothesis."

"The Neolithic age of these cats was something we didn't even consider as a hypothesis."

The discovery is detailed in a study published Monday, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The search for ancient cats — The cat remains were found in caves in Poland, "where the deposits were mixed and difficult to separate," Krajcarz describes.

What these bones had to offer were stable isotopes: While you can tell what a modern animal eats by examining their stomach or scats, you don't have that option with ancient remains. That poses a challenge because understanding what an animal eats is key to understanding whether or not it is domesticated: It's previously been assumed that it was the exploitation of rodents as a source of easily accessible food that's responsible for cat domestication. Rats follow farmers, and cats follow rats — a patten described as synanthropic behavior, or when animals benefit from an association with human beings.

To test the extent to which synathropic behavior was going on, the scientists analyzed stable isotopes — variants of chemical elements in bioloigcal material, like Carbon and Nitrogen. This analysis can reveal the average diet of an animal during long intervals of its lifespan.

The Zarska Cave is where the team found some of the earliest cat remains of Near Eastern lineage.

The team analyzed the stable isotopes in six samples of the Late Neolithic Near East wildcats, 34 other animals (including humans, dogs, and rats from the same time period), the European wildcat, and the earliest domestic cats known from the territory of Poland, which date to the Roman Period.

The analysis revealed that while human agricultural activity had already altered the stable isotope ratios of rodents, the ancient Near East wildcats had not gone through the same level of transition — although, they did frequently dine on those rodents. Instead, their stable isotope ratios were very similar to those of the European wildcats, suggesting that while they followed the farmers to Europe, they were not yet fully dependent on the farmers. The scientists describe these cats as "free-living individuals."

What this means — Krajcarz explains that other numerous studies indicate that the interaction between ancient people and wildcats started about 10 millennia ago in the Near East. That relationship ignited cat domestication, a process that coincided with agricultural village development in the Fertile Crescent. Eventually, the descendants of five wild cat breeds spread across the planet.

This study specifically adds to our understanding of the duration of cat-human coexistence in Europe, and the complexity of this relationship, Krajcarz explains.

"In the light of data we published previously and in the current paper, cats accompanied people in Central Europe for thousands of years, staying somewhere between being wild and domesticated, and possibly also feral," she says.

"For millennia, cats were only natural allies of humans in their constant fight against rodents, rather than domesticated pets."

When exactly these cats became European housecats is still not clear. That's what the Krajcarz and her team are working on next. They know that cats were already domesticated in ancient Egypt, and they know that they were at least close to being domesticated in Central Europe. She questions whether the cats she studied truly became domesticated cats, or if they interbred with native European wildcats or were replaced by a different wave of domestic cats, maybe of Egyptian origin.

"We are not giving up on cats," Krajcarz says. "This is just the beginning of a more in-depth study of cat history."

Abstract: Cat remains from Poland dated to 4,200 to 2,300 y BCE are currently the earliest evidence for the migration of the Near Eastern cat (NE cat), the ancestor of domestic cats, into Central Europe. This early immigration preceded the known establishment of housecat populations in the region by around 3,000 y. One hypothesis assumed that NE cats followed the migration of early farmers as synanthropes. In this study, we analyze the stable isotopes in six samples of Late Neolithic NE cat bones and further 34 of the associated fauna, including the European wildcat. We approximate the diet and trophic ecology of Late Neolithic felids in a broad context of contemporary wild and domestic animals and humans. In addition, we compared the ecology of Late Neolithic NE cats with the earliest domestic cats known from the territory of Poland, dating to the Roman Period. Our results reveal that human agricultural activity during the Late Neolithic had already impacted the isotopic signature of rodents in the ecosystem. These synanthropic pests constituted a significant proportion of the NE cat’s diet. Our interpretation is that Late Neolithic NE cats were opportunistic synanthropes, most probably free-living individuals (i.e., not directly relying on a human food supply). We explore niche partitioning between studied NE cats and the contemporary native European wildcats. We find only minor differences between the isotopic ecology of both these taxa. We conclude that, after the app
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