Though the modern human–cat relationship is well documented on YouTube, researchers are still puzzling over how our initial domestication of cats developed. But now a new discovery in China is helping to shed some light on it: in a paper published today, researchers describe finding multiple cats' fossilized bones dating back 5,300 years ago — one of the earliest signs of cat domestication to date. The cats are believed to have lived alongside farmers, often attacking rodents that got into their food supply, eating food that humans discarded, and potentially even being fed by humans.
"Cats were attracted to ancient farming villages by small animals."
"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," Fiona Marshall, a co-author of the study from Washington University in St. Louis, says in a statement. "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."
The research, led from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is being published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researcher write that it was in Quanhucun, a village in the Shaanxi Province of China, that they found eight cat bones coming from at least two separate cats — likely more. At least one of the cats lived to a very old age, suggesting that it may have been looked after by humans. Other cats focused more on rodents, as bones, burrows, and architectural signs indicated that they were a problem for the village's farmers.
The finding fits into an important — and still unclear — place in the history of cats' domestication. Researchers previously found a human and a wildcat buried beside one another at a gravesite in Cyprus that dates around 10,000 years back, but there's a large gap between that and the next major finding on cats' domestication, art from around 4,000 years ago in Egypt. At 5,300 years old, this new finding helps to fill that gap and explain how domestication developed. Before now, domesticated cats weren't even thought to have come to China until closer to 2,000 years ago.
But how they got there is still far from clear. "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,” Marshall says. Most domestic cats today are believed to be descendants of the Near Eastern Wildcat, but there's no DNA evidence yet to confirm that the cats present in Quanhucun were related. The paper suggests that a complex trade network could have brought them there though, and another two groups of researchers in China and France are now looking into how exactly these cats fit into the puzzle of domestication.