Domestic cats around the world can trace their origins back to the Near East's Fertile Crescent -- the belt of land stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf -- and from there, ex oriente lux: cats were transported around the world by humans. Long identified as the 'cradle of civilisation' for our 2-legged species, researchers at the University of California, Davis, have concluded that ancestral roads for all 600 million modern day pussy cats also lead back to the same locale.
Wheat, rye and barley had been domesticated in the Near East by 10,000 years ago. Undoubtedly, the granaries of early farming villages harboured mice and rats and other succulent feline food. Cats found good hunting there, and early settlers surely appreciated the little predators' help protecting their stocks.
Domesticated but never fully tamed
Unlike other domestic animals, which were tamed by people, cats probably domesticated themselves, which explains a lot about the haughty independence of their modern descendants. Get down from your pedestal, people! The push for domestication probably came from the cat side, not the human side. And they've been rubbing it in ever since.
"Cats are not as domestic as you might think," says Leslie Lyons, veterinary genetics researcher and team leader at UC, Davis. "They are probably allowing you to live with them, not the other way around."
I couldn't agree more.
The Mother (or maybe Dad) of All House Cats
The earliest archaeological evidence of cat domestication dates back 9,500 years, when cats lived alongside humans in settlement sites on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus off the coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey).
The carefully interred remains of a 30-years old human and a cat were found buried together in close proximity (just 40 cm [16 inches] apart) with seashells, polished stones, and other decorative artifacts in a 9,500-year-old grave site in Cyprus. This is the only burial with such a high number of offerings for the whole early Neolithic in Cyprus. The 8-month old cat is entirely intact, either a part of the wealth accompanying the dead person (man or woman, we don't know) or an honoured friend.
THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS
After tracing the movement of cats and their gene pools through the ancient world, the UC Davis research team focused on measuring changes in genetic diversity as cats went on caravans and sailed to every part of the globe.
Unlike other domesticated species, there has been little effort to improve (?!?) on the cat for functional purposes, so most modern-day cats are quite genetically close to their ancestors. Breed development, such as it's been, has been driven more by preferences for certain aesthetic qualities like coat colour and colour patterns.
Of today's 50 recognized cat breeds, 16 are thought to be "natural breeds" that occurred in specific regions, while the remaining breeds were developed during the past 50 years.
Brave "above and beyond the call of duty"
The researchers collected samples of cheek cells from more than 11,000 Persians, Siamese, street cats and household tabbies around the world. If you've ever given pills to your own moggie, you have to admire the team's dedication, poking behind the whiskers of more than 11,000 cats to swab inside their mouths.
These cats represented 17 populations of randomly bred cats from Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as 22 recognized breeds. Genetic markers , commonly used for DNA profiling, were used to determine the genetic relationships of cat breeds.
The twists and turns of feline travels have resulted in four broad groups -- with genetic recognition trophies going to cats from Europe, the Mediterranean basin, East Africa, and Asia. But when researchers examined the genes of what are thought to be distinct breeds, they were unable to find significant differences among many of them.
"An example would be Persian and exotic shorthairs," said Dr Lyons. "When you look at those two breeds, you can't distinguish them from one from another. Breeds look very different because of variations in a single gene, which is not enough to distinguish them genetically."
The Naming of Cats is a Difficult Matter
The most surprising discovery is that some breeds do not come from what was thought to be their geographical homeland.
The Japanese bobtail, for example, does not seem genetically similar to cats from Japan, indicating the breed may have originated elsewhere.
Maine coone and American shorthair -- two breeds that originated in the United States -- were genetically similar to the seven Western European breeds. This suggests that the cats were brought to the New World by European settlers and have not had time to develop significant genetic differentiation from their Western European ancestors.
Despite its name, the Persian, perhaps the oldest recognized pure breed, looks as though it actually arose in Western Europe and not Persia (modern Iran). “We would have expected Persians to be more Mediterranean, perhaps more like the Israeli or Turkish cats,” said Lyons, who explained that Persian cats instead “seem more western.” I don't think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be pleased with that.
But genes aren't everything.
It should still be possible to recognize a Persian cat (left), according to a blogger who has circulated this picture on the internet.*
Siamese, Burmese and Korats, on the contrary, all show ancestral connections with southeast Asian cats. Let's hear it for the Siamese! Dr Lyons does not try to explain why Siamese are such noisy talkers (though she has tried her hand at why cats purr). If she'd like to come to my house and swab the cheeks of my three Siamese (Myrtis, Tanit aka Roughneck, and Wawet), I'm sure they'll try to tell her their names, loud and insistently, until they think she understands.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
* The Persian cat picture was sent to me by my old friend Lys.
I am indebted to Rob Stein of the Washington Post for alerting me to this phenomenal UC Davis study, Scientists Use DNA to Unravel Cats' Lineage .