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Study Confirms: First Felines to Live with Humans 5,500 Years Ago Were Relatives of the Asian Leopard Cat

  • The bones studied were unearthed in Shaanxi, China and date to 3,500 BC

  • Scientists found ancient felines descended from the Asian leopard cat 

  • This suggests domestication in Asia occurred separately to that in Egypt

  • However, the western cat replaced the leopard cat sometime after the end of the Neolithic age, possibly because of the opening of the Silk Road
     

There are thought to be 500 million domestic cats worldwide, all descended from a form of wildcat native to north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

 

But this wasn't always the case. 
 

Researchers studying the bones of the earliest domesticated cats in China have discovered the first felines to live with humans 5,000 years ago were instead relatives of the Asian leopard cat. 
 

Until now, it was assumed domesticated cats may have been transported to Asia from Egypt and the Mediterranean during this time. 

 

Researchers studying the bones of the earliest domesticated cats in China have discovered the first felines to live with humans 5,000 years ago were relatives of the Asian leopard cat (pictured). Until now, it was assumed domesticated cats may have been transported to Asia from Egypt and the Mediterranean during this time.

 

But this study instead suggests 'taming' of cats took place at least twice in different parts of the world – and with two different species of cat.


The cat bones used in the study were unearthed in archaeological excavations in 2001 from the site of ancient agricultural settlements in Shaanxi province in northern China. 

 

They were dated to 3,000 to 3,500 years BC. 

 

To determine which species they originated from, and whether they belonged to the same group of felines that were tamed in the West, scientists undertook what's known as geometric morphometric analysis.

 

The team of researchers included experts from The French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the French Natural History Museum (MNHN), the University of Aberdeen, the Chinese Academy of Social Science and the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology. 

 

In the absence of ancient DNA, geometric morphometric analysis is the only way of differentiating the bones of such small cats, which have very similar shapes with differences that are often imperceptible using conventional techniques. 

 

The scientists analysed the mandibles of five cats from Shaanxi and Henan dating from 3,500 to 2,900 BC. 

 

All of the bones in the excavation belonged to the leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis, an animal of similar size to a domestic cat but with longer legs and a smaller head, and which still lives in the wild across much of Asia. 

 

This wildcat, which is a distant relation of the western wildcat, is well-known for its propensity to frequent areas with a strong human presence.

 

Just as in the Near East and Egypt, leopard cats were likely attracted into Chinese settlements by the proliferation of rodents who took advantage of grain stores.

 

The researchers showed that cats and humans began to live alongside one another as agriculture developed, presumably because both found a benefit in the cats' rodent-catching abilities.

Instead, the study suggests 'taming' of cats took place at least twice in different parts of the world. In the absence of ancient DNA, geometric morphometric analysis was used to differentiate the bones (skull pictured) of such small cats, which have very similar shapes with often imperceptible differences.

 

The scientists analysed the mandibles of five cats from Shaanxi and Henan (example pictured). All of the bones in the excavation belonged to the leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis, an animal of similar size to a domestic cat but with longer legs and a smaller head, and which still lives in the wild across much of Asia.

 

This mirrors the pattern recorded in the west, where domestication started between 9,000 and 11,000 years ago.

 

Until recently, archaeologists widely believed cats were domesticated in ancient Egypt between 2,310 BC and 1950 BC.

 

However, the remains of kittens found in March 2014 pushed this back by almost 2,000 years. 

 

This raised the question of whether domesticated cats spread outwards from Egypt, or whether local animals in China developed the same interest in human settlement. 

The findings showed that domestication took place here independently, and could not have been by animals brought in from Egypt.

 

The leopard cat's career as a domestic moggy was not permanent, though, and today all domestic cats in China are of the same species as in Europe. 

 

It seems that the western cat replaced the leopard cat sometime after the end of the Neolithic age, possibly because of the opening of the Silk Road. 

 

Shaanxi is a northwestern Chinese province whose ancient capital, Xi’an, was a starting point for the Silk Road. 

 

The province marks the eastern end of that trading route, which began to play an important role from the establishment of the Roman and Han empires.

 

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