How We Domesticated Cats (Twice)

How We Domesticated Cats (Twice)

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when a team 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 one and a half million felines including both pets and feral cats roamed 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 that most of them are big fans of water the closest mainland is Turkey about 70 kilometres away so how did all those
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cats get there well those French archaeologists might have found the answer while excavating a 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 eight-month-old capped feeding to around nine thousand five hundred years ago this burial represented some of the oldest known evidence of human cat companionship anywhere in the world predating the more well-known love of cats in ancient Egypt by 4000 years but when did this close relationship between humans and cats start who were the ancestors of domesticated cats and how
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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 the way let them poop inside our houses and knock stuff off our counters and be 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 could trace its origins to a species of wild cats called felis Silvestri's which is made up of five different subspecies based on studies of the genomes of modern house cats one
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subspecies called felis Silvestri's lavaca is the direct ancestor of all domesticated cats today and those wild cats often referred to as African wild cats can still be found across North Africa and Southwest Asia and as you could tell these ancestral cats don't look very different from their domesticated descendants they're slightly larger and they don't have the colour 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 the same pattern in the cats depicted in ancient Egyptian artwork now these wild kitties are solitary
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creatures they 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 end 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 cats mastication actually worked some of the oldest known fossils include specimens from Cyprus that are about eleven thousand years old and others in Turkey from around ten thousand years ago so how did we get from felis Silvestri's lipika to felis catus well
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you know how hard it is to get has to do stuff it took a long time and we still don't have 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. meléndez aider has proposed that there are three pathways to domestication the prey pathway the directed pathway in the commensal pathway in the prey pathway wild animals
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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 learn 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 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 their scraps or on
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prayed 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 were plaguing 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 Kent remains from five thousand six hundred years ago in northwestern China has revealed trace
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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 isotopic data from one cat revealed a diet that had less meat and more millet than expected suggesting that either scavenged from or was fed by the villagers 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 and coat color and patterning these included new variations of the tabby coat and the
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introduction of black orange and white colors most of these coat changes are fairly recent and came about as recessive genes and wild cats became more prominent then by the 19th century we think people started to selectively breed for more variation in markings and colors but beyond size in color domestication didn't really change the morphology of cats that much compared to say dogs which I've seen major changes in 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
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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 wild cats are actually thought to have been domesticated twice once in South West 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
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domestication for example in Egypt 6 burials have been uncovered at the site of higher accomplice containing 2 adult cats and four kittens and they date to between thirty six hundred and thirty eight hundred years ago their smaller bones closely matched the size of those and domesticated cats and one cat skeleton even showed healed fractures suggesting that it was cared for by its human companions after about three thousand years ago in Egypt we begin to 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
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civilizations began 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 art works like mosaics that show cats and 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 brought the cats to cyprus in the first place well all we know is that at some point during the early Holocene epoch
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possibly eleven thousand 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 just 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 try 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
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such a presence our relationship has been mutually beneficial enough that domestic cats have truly taken over the world today their estimated overall population is 600 million cats have achieved world domination but if it wasn't for us they might never have left Africa or 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 have started by not peeing on my laundry but I loved him anyway big thanks and kitties laurels to this month's Yount ologists Patrick Seyfert Jake Hart John
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Davison ting and Steve to join the e o nights go to patreon.com/scishow to thank you for joining me in the Constantine houses studio be sure to subscribe at youtube.com slash jion's for more evolutionary adventures [Music] you [Music]

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