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1 July 2007
Why the cat was 'tamed'

Combining the fields of genetics and archeology, scientists have found that cat domestication occurred near the beginning of human civilization, long before many previous archeological estimates. Published in the journal Science, the research used DNA from modern house cats to trace the origin of domestic cats back to a specific time and region that coincided with the settlement of humans in the Middle East region known as the Fertile Crescent.
     "Our study was able to localize it down to one subspecies whose range included the Near East," said Oxford University zoologist Carlos Driscoll. Scientists have long debated whether cats were independently domesticated at several regions and points in time, or whether they were first kept as pets in one civilization before being spread around the world. The identification of a single ancestral species for modern house cats supports the single-origin theory.
     In 2004, French researchers found the remains of a cat buried with a human who died roughly 9,500 years ago on the island of Cyprus, where there are no native wildcat species. This discovery placed the association between humans and cats much further back in history than previously thought. Dating the origin of domestic cats earlier, and placing this process in the Middle East, suggests that cats played an important role in the lives of the first farmers. "Mankind settled down into agricultural villages for the first time about 12,000 years ago, developing many domestic cereals and plants," said Stephen O'Brien, another of the study's authors. "That's about the time and exact same place that cats walked out of woods and did something unusual: act friendly."
     The transition of humans from nomadic hunter-gatherers to stationary farmers drew the attention of rodents who fed on the villages' food stores. These pests, in turn, drew wildcats toward this early human society. "Cats provided two things to early farmers: companionship and the ability to dispatch rodents that were attacking grain stores, which was critical for early farmers to get through winters," O'Brien said. This cooperative relationship may explain why domestic cats, unlike dogs and their ancestral relatives, wolves, have not evolved very far from wildcat species.

Source: Chicago Tribune (29 June 2007)

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