New in science: The riveting history of how cats have travelled the world

Jan 13, 2023 07:05 PM IST

Domestic felines only go back 10,000 years; by contrast, dogs were first domesticated 23,000 years ago. What changed the human-cat bond, intriguingly, was settled agriculture. Amid fields and stores and granaries, rodents were a looming threat. Cats became precious, pampered; they even travelled the world.

If your cat were a person, you’d have parted ways long ago. Few species in history have been so pampered, for so little return, as the domestic feline. How did we get here, our emotions batted away with a gentle paw, our precious artefacts flicked off every surface, and still our affections intact?

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Cats were first domesticated about 10,000 years ago, in a crucial time for humans: we were just beginning to practise settled agriculture. That’s a lot later than the domestication of dogs, which is said to have begun about 23,000 years ago, when humans were still nomads and cave-dwellers.

Dogs were all the friend humans needed in those early years: a loyal beast to guard a cave or campsite; help with hunts, herds and transport; sound the alarm; and protect the young and infirm. The shift from a nomadic life to agriculture, however, meant that rodents became a menacing threat. How was one to protect the fields, the stores, the produce? Wild cats first stalked into human settlements at this stage, hunting the pests that were their natural prey, says a study on the genetic diversity of modern cat populations, published in the journal Nature in November.

The earliest domestication occurred in many patches of early human civilisation, from the Yangtze Plain in China to the Indus Valley in the Indian subcontinent.

For the study, feline geneticist Leslie A Lyons of the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, analysed over 200 genetic markers and mutations across 1,000 cats, looking for clues to the origins of today’s domestic felines. The genetic strain, she found, can be traced to origins in the Mediterranean Basin (which includes parts of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and Turkey).

As agrarian societies developed, domesticated cats spread. By 5,000 BCE, they had found a place in temple carvings and pharaohs’ tombs in Egypt. Thousands of years later, they found pride of place on ships, where they were vital in their role of pest-destroyers.

They travelled widely with explorers, missionaries and imperialists and, as a result, domestic cats in Australia, the Americas and African countries such as Tunisia and Kenya bear strong genetic links with strains from Western Europe, Lyons found. (Cats in India and Sri Lanka were found to have a much more mixed ancestry, suggesting that their ancestors had also roamed the land and maritime Silk Road routes.)

Today, cats continue to hunt; come and go as they please; fend for themselves. “Unlike dogs and other domesticated animals, we haven’t really changed the behaviours of cats that much during the domestication process,” says Lyons, in an MU release.

Perhaps that’s where it comes from, then, that innate sense cats seem to have, that you need them more than they’ve ever needed you.

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    Dipanjan Sinha is principal correspondent, weekend features in Mumbai. He has been a journalist for seven years now and worked on the desk, news and features teams

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