WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Genetic study has confirmed what archeologists have suspected for decades — the “Cradle of Civilization” is also the birthplace of the house cat.
All domestic cats, from the scrawny strays prowling the markets of Asia to the purebred reclining on the bed of a doting owner, descend from a tabby-like sub-species living in North Africa, the researchers reported on Thursday.
The near Eastern wildcat, known scientifically as Felis silvestris lybica, is the likely ancestor of all the cats whose genes were sampled by the team, they report in Friday’s issue of the journal Science.
“Domestic cats throughout the entire world had a common ancestor and that common ancestor lived in the Near East. There was no separate domestication in Europe or South Africa or China,” said Carlos Driscoll of the National Cancer Institute and the University of Oxford in Britain.
“The domestication of wild species to complement human civilization stands as one of the more successful ‘biological experiments’ ever undertaken,” wrote the researchers, led by Dr. Stephen O’Brien of the National Cancer Institute, in their report.
“For cats, the process began over 9,000 years ago as the earliest farmers of the Fertile Crescent domesticated grains and cereals as well as livestock animals.” The Fertile Crescent stretches from modern-day Egypt to Iran.
Preserved remains show that cats were valued by Egyptians, and one skeleton unearthed in Cyprus in 2004 showed that people were keeping cats as pets more than 9,000 years ago.
Driscoll, who admits he is a cat person, adds: “You are not civilized without a cat.”
All domestic cats and small wildcats belong to the same species — Felis silvestris. But there are wildcat sub-species in many regions of the world.
The international team studied the genes of 979 domestic cats as well as some of the animals that may have been their ancestors — the European wildcat or Felis silvestris silvestris, the Near Eastern wildcat or Felis silvestris lybica, the Central Asian wildcat, the sub Saharan African wildcat and the Chinese desert cat.
They found that each of the Felis silvestris subspecies, falls into a genetically distinct group, or clade. Some of the Near Eastern wildcats and all the domestic cats fell into the same clade.
And their lineage is far more ancient than anyone suspected, originating more than 100,000 years ago. Driscoll is quick to stress, however, that the first cats were not being kept as pets by the pre-humans that existed then.
“We weren’t out of Africa. We hadn’t even domesticated ourselves yet, much less anything else,” Driscoll said.
O’Brien has been studying the genetics of cats for years, hoping to uncover links to disease.
“Cats are a model for human genetic disease,” Driscoll said. “Cats are also really good models for brain development.”