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19 December 2013
Cats domesticated by Chinese farmers 5,000 years ago

A study conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has produced the first direct evidence of cat domestication. Led by Yaowu Hu, he and his colleagues analyzed eight bones from at least two wild cats excavated from the site of the ancient Chinese village of Quanhucuns. The analysis showed that the cats were preying on animals that lived on farmed millet - probably rodents. Archaeological evidence indicated that the village farmers had problems with rodents in the grain stores. In essence, the cats and the villagers had developed a kind of symbiotic relationship.
     "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 study co-author Fiona Marshall, PhD, a professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. "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."
     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.
     Cats were thought to have first been domesticated in ancient Egypt 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.
     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 descendents of the Near Eastern strain, it would suggest they were domesticated elsewhere and later introduced to the region.

Edited from Popular Archaeology (16 December 2013)

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