Cats Were Domesticated 5,000 Years Ago In China, Study

Cats Had Strong Relationships With Humans Even Before Domestication

Featured Research
December 27, 2013

5,000 years ago, cats lived alongside farmers in the ancient Chinese village of Quanhucun, according to a new study.

AsianScientist (Dec. 27, 2013) – 5,000 years ago, cats lived alongside farmers in the ancient Chinese village of Quanhucun, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has confirmed.

“Our data suggest that cats were attracted to ancient farming villages by small animals, such as rodents that were living on the grain that the farmers grew, ate and stored,” said study co-author Fiona Marshall, a professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

The study, led by researchers in China and the US, provides the first direct evidence for the processes of cat domestication.

“Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats,” said Marshall. “Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits.”

Cats were thought to have first been domesticated in ancient Egypt, where they were kept some 4,000 years ago, but more recent research suggests close relations with humans may have occurred much earlier, including the discovery of a wild cat buried with a human nearly 10,000 years ago in Cyprus. While it often has been argued that cats were attracted to rodents and other food in early farming villages and domesticated themselves, there has been little evidence for this theory.

Led by Yaowu Hu and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers in China analyzed eight bones from at least two cats excavated from a site near Quanhucun.

Using radiocarbon dating and isotopic analyses of carbon and nitrogen traces, the research team demonstrated that the rodents, domestic dogs and pigs from the ancient village were eating millet, but deer were not. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes show that cats were preying on animals that lived on farmed millet, probably rodents. At the same time, an ancient rodent burrow into a storage pit and the rodent-proof design of grain storage pots indicate that farmers had problems with rodents in the grain stores.

Other clues gleaned from the Quanhucun food web suggest the relationship between cats and humans had begun to grow closer. One of the cats was aged, showing that it survived well in the village. Another ate fewer animals and more millet than expected, suggesting that it scavenged human food or was fed.

Recent DNA studies suggest that most of the estimated 600 million domestic cats now living around the globe are descendants most directly of the Near Eastern Wildcat, one of the five Felis sylvestris lybica wildcat subspecies still found around the Old World.

Marshall, an expert on animal domestication, said there currently is no DNA evidence to show whether the cats found at Quanhucun are descendants of the Near Eastern Wildcat, a subspecies not native to the area. If the Quanhucun cats turn out to be close descendants of the Near Eastern strain, it would suggest they were domesticated elsewhere and later introduced to the region.

“We do not yet know whether these cats came to China from the Near East, whether they interbred with Chinese wild-cat species, or even whether cats from China played a previously unsuspected role in domestication,” said Marshall.

The article can be found at: Hu Y et al. (2013) Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication.

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Source: Chinese Academy of Sciences;
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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