Domestic cats in Europe: a complicated 5,000 year history

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A loner and a hunter with highly developed territorial instincts. These features make cats averse to domestication. Even so, we did it. Nowadays, about 500 million of them live in households around the world.

Although the common history of cats and people began 10,000 years ago, the origins of this relationship remains poorly understood. How was the domestication process carried out? Where did they come from, and how? What was their role in contemporary people’s lives?

An article attempting to answer some of these questions, with a focus on central Europe, has been published in the journal PNAS. The researchers attempt to find ancestors of domestic cats in Neolithic Europe, and, by analyzing the diet of particular cats, discuss how close they cohabitated with people.

Winding paths of the domesticated cat

In Medieval Poland, cats were not as popular as you might think. According to recent research, semi-domesticated weasels, or even snakes, were favored to protect grain crops against rodents. But by the second half of the 13th century cats started increasing in popularity.

Cats are believed to have spread across Central Europe mainly due to the influence of the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, the earliest cat remains in the area date back to 4,200-2,300 BC and evidence the first migrations of the Nubian cat which originally inhabited the Near East and North Africa. This particular species is considered the ancestor of domestic cats in Central Europe.

The Nubian cat is one of wildcat subspecies (next to the European wildcat, which is not the domestic cat ancestor even though they can interbreed) whose domestication began in the Fertile Crescent ca. 10,000 – 9,000 years ago.

A sedentary way of life led to more food being stored which, consequently, attracted rodents of many kinds. This could result in attracting wild cats to easy food sources and the benefits turned out to be mutual. It is likely however that cats remained rather neutral to people.

Cat skeleton analyses, together with the mammal iconography, allow researchers to make an assumption that cats reached Europe migrating from the Near East, through Anatolia, Cyprus, Crete, Greece, to Ancient Rome.

Caption: Neolithic cultural level inside Zarska Cave, where one of the earliest cat remains of the Near Eastern lineage was discovered. Credit: Micha Wojenka, Magdalena Krajcarz

Cat diet and the history of domestication

The role cats played in Neolithic Poland is not clear since scientists have little evidence of these animals presence. The small number of remains found come from caves rather than human settlements which means they may not have been buried by people. Instead, they could have become pray to other predators or perhaps simply lived and died in the caves. Nevertheless, it is also possible that these cats could have been kept by people in order to protect crops from rodents.

In the new PNAS article, the researchers provide insight into the diet of these cats in order to determine how close human-cat relations were. To carry out the study six Neolithic cat remains of the Near East characteristics from four cave sites in the Kraków- Czestochowa Upland (southern Poland) were used.

Stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes in bone collagen was utilized for this research, since the isotope composition of archaeological remains reflects the foods eaten. Using these techniques the authors were able to decide whether contemporary cats found food taking advantage of human activity.

According to the results, the Near East cats were not fully dependent on people. They made use of all the available food sources, benefiting from human activity and hunting individually in forests. Thus, according this new research they maintained their independence. The findings therefore confirm the hypothesis that Near East wildcats spread across Europe accompanying the first farmers, probably as commensal animals.

Research article: Ancestors of domestic cats in Neolithic Central Europe: Isotopic evidence of a synanthropic diet


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