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When a group of French archaeologists landed on the island of Cyprus in 2001, they quickly found that they were ... outnumbered. Despite having a population of about 1.2 million people, Cyprus turned out to have an even bigger population of cats. By some estimates, as many as 1.5 million felines, including both pets and feral cats, roam the country. You can find them practically everywhere! But Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean, and, if you’ve ever tried to give a cat a bath, you know most of them aren’t big fans of water. The closest mainland is Turkey, about 70 kilometers away! So how did all of those cats get there? Well, those French archaeologists might have found the answer. While excavating the site of an ancient settlement, they discovered something quite surprising. It was the grave of a man who was buried alongside offerings of flint tools, seashells and … an 8 month old cat. Dating to around 9,500 years ago, this burial represented some of the oldest known evidence of human/cat companionships anywhere in the world - predating the more well-known love of cats in ancient Egypt by 4,000 years! But when did this close relationship between humans and cats start? Who were the ancestors of domesticated cats?
And how did humans help cats take over Cyprus...and eventually the world? For that, we can thank the complex process known as domestication. And yes -- even though we let them poop in our houses and knock stuff off our counters and sometimes pee in the laundry basket for some reason -- we did domesticate them, even though it might not always feel like it. Today’s domesticated cat is its own species, known as Felis catus. And we can trace its origins to a species of wild cats called Felis silvestris, which is made up of five different subspecies. Based on studies of the genomes of modern house cats, one subspecies, called Felis silvestris lybica, is the direct ancestor of all domesticated cats today. And those wild cats -- often referred to as African wildcats -- can still be found across North Africa and Southwest Asia. And as you can tell, these ancestral cats don’t look very different from their domesticated descendants. They’re slightly larger, and they don’t have the color variations in their coats that we see in house cats. Instead, they mostly have what are called mackerel-tabby patterns, with stripes that run perpendicular to their spines. You can even find this same pattern in the cats depicted in ancient Egyptian artwork.
Now, these wild kitties are solitary creatures that don’t have the same social structure that other animals, like wolves, do. So scientists think that the domestication of cats was probably a different process from the domestication of other animals. But unfortunately, the fossil record of African wildcats isn’t great. Most haven’t been preserved well enough to be used in genetic analysis, which is partly why it’s been so hard to figure out how cat domestication actually worked. Some of the oldest known fossils include specimens from Cyprus that are about 11,000 years old, and others in Turkey from around 10,000 years ago. So, how did we get from Felis silvestris lybica to Felis catus? Well, you know how hard it is to get cats to do stuff. It took a lot of time! And we still don’t know the full picture, but the first step is understanding the different ways in which animals can be domesticated. A species is considered to be “domesticated” when it becomes genetically and permanently modified through human-influenced breeding. And it has to be reliant on humans on some level, like for food and shelter. Or to clean out the litter box. And American archaeologist Dr. Melinda Zeder has proposed that there are three pathways to domestication: the prey pathway, the directed pathway, and the commensal pathway. In the prey pathway, wild animals are first hunted by people.
Then, in order to better control the hunts, people begin to manage herds of the animals, like goats and cattle. This leads to captive breeding and eventually domestication of the species. With the directed pathway, people use lessons they learned from previous attempts at domestication, often through the prey pathway. Horses and beasts of burden, like donkeys and camels, were most likely domesticated this way. We fast-tracked their domestication in order to harness their abilities to walk long distances and carry heavy loads. And finally, in the commensal pathway, wild animals are attracted to human settlements by food. They go where the people go, feeding off of their scraps, or on prey that may have also been drawn to the humans, like mice or rats. And this eventually leads to domestication. This is probably how cats were domesticated. For thousands of years, they stayed close to human dwellings for food, but weren’t necessarily close to the people themselves. But eventually, people noticed that cats were actually pretty good at catching the pests that plagued their food stores, and began to actively entice them to live in their settlements. And we can get glimpses into this process by studying the remains of ancient kitties. For example, isotopic analysis of cat remains from 5,600 years ago in northwestern China
has revealed trace amounts of millet, a staple grain in the diet of the human villagers there. This suggests that cats were eating the mice that were feeding on stored millet, no doubt a useful service for the villagers! And the isotopic data from one cat revealed a diet that had less meat and more millet than expected, suggesting that it either scavenged from, or was fed by, the villagers.... Aww! So what did domestication, as a process, do to change wild cats into house cats? Well, physically, domestication has made house cats smaller than their ancestors, and resulted in new varieties in coat color and patterning. These included new variations of the tabby coat, and the introduction of black, orange, and white colors. Most of these coat changes are fairly recent, and came about as recessive genes in wildcats became more prominent. Then by the 19th century, scientists believe, people started to selectively breed for more variation in markings and colors. But beyond size and color, domestication really didn’t change the morphology of cats that much compared to, say, dogs, which have seen major changes to their whole bodies. This is mostly because of differences in breeding practices, as different dog breeds were bred for specific purposes. Modern cats also maintain more genetic and behavioral similarities with their wild ancestors
than most other domesticated animals do, including behaviors related to eating and breeding. This is probably because of interbreeding between domesticated cats and surrounding wildcat populations. But the thing is, wildcats are actually thought to have been domesticated twice - once in southwest Asia about 10,000 years ago, and again in Egypt, about 3,500 years ago! This is based on an analysis of the genome of modern cats, which suggests that two different source populations contributed to the current gene pool at two different times. And we’ve also found archaeological evidence that supports multiple points of domestication. For example, in Egypt, six burials have been uncovered at the site of Hierakonpolis containing two adult cats and four kittens. And they date to between 3,600 and 3,800 years ago. Their smaller bones closely match the size of those in domesticated cats, and one cat’s skeleton even showed healed fractures, suggesting that it was cared for by its human companions. After about 3,000 years ago in Egypt, we can see these relationships becoming closer, through art and iconography that show cats alongside people. And from there, it looks like cats were brought to Rome by early Greek settlers, as well as through interactions between Rome and Egypt.
As civilizations begin to expand around 2,000 years ago, especially within the Roman Empire, cats followed as well. We know ancient Romans kept felines as pets, based on various artworks,like mosaics, that show cats in more domestic settings, often hunting prey. Roman cats were most likely adopted into households to catch rodents and other pests - much like they did in the early stages of domestication. But none of this actually tells us where the story of cat domestication started: after all If the oldest evidence of domestic cats is on the island of Cyprus, then who brought cats to Cyprus in the first place? Well, all we know is that, at some point during the Early Holocene Epoch, possibly 11,000 years ago, people from southwest Asia began to migrate to Europe -- including Cyprus. And they brought with them that subspecies of cat that was the ancestor of our domesticated cats. And, cats being cats, we ended up with millions of the little guys In modern day Cyprus, the cat population has boomed to the point of being considered an infestation. Cats are often seen as vermin, and there have been many attempts to get a handle on their growing population. Luckily for the feral cats, though, there are many sanctuaries run by volunteers who try to care for every stray. But it’s not just on this island where cats have commanded such a presence.
Our relationship has been mutually beneficial enough that domestic cats have truly taken over the world. Today their estimated overall population of 600 million. Cats have achieved world domination, but if it wasn’t for us, they might’ve never have left Africa and Asia. We carried them to places they otherwise might never have seen. So maybe our pet cats should treat us with a little more respect. Mine could’ve started by not peeing on my laundry. But I loved him anyway. Big thanks and kitty snuggles to this month’s Eontologists: Patrick Seifert, Jake Hart, Jon Davison Ng, and Steve! To join the Eonites, go patreon.com/eons and pledge your support...like right meow! Kallie asked me to use those exact words! But I also want to thank you for joining me in the Konstantin Haase Studio. Be sure to subscribe at youtube.com/eons for more evolutionary adventures!
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