May 27, 2009
Most of the time, it feels quite natural to have a kitty prowling your home or curled up on the bed. On occasion, though, you might look at one and wonder how it got there. A new article in Scientific American plots out the journey:
~10,000 years ago (ya): The house mouse (Mus musculus domesticus) takes up residence in the homes and trash heaps of early Fertile Crescent settlements. Wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica) follow their prey into human homes. “[T]hese food sources would have encouraged cats to adapt to living with people; in the lingo of evolutionary biology, natural selection favored those cats that were able to cohabitate with humans and thereby gain access to the trash and mice.” Being cute didn’t hurt them, either, when they were first trying to make their homes in ours.
9,500 ya: An adult human is buried next to an eight-month-old cat, both oriented in a westward direction, on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Cats aren’t native to the island, so they must have been brought over by boat, likely from the nearby Levantine coast. This burial is taken as evidence of “a special, intentional relationship with cats.”
9,000 ya: The domestic cat has made it to Israel; an archaeological deposit from this time period contains a feline molar tooth.
4,000 ya: The domestic cat can be found in Pakistan, as evidenced by another tooth.
3,700 ya: Another find in Israel, an ivory cat statuette, “suggests the cat was a common sight around homes and villages in the Fertile Crescent before its introduction to Egypt.”
3,600 ya: Images of cats frequently appear in paintings from Egypt’s New Kingdom period. The cats can be seen under chairs, eating from bowls and sometimes collared. “The abundance of these illustrations signifies that cats had become common members of Egyptian households by this time.”
2,900 ya: The cat finds it rightful place, having become the image of the Egyptian goddess Bastet. At Bastet’s sacred city of Bubastis, house cats were sacrificed, mummified and buried by the ton (the sheer quantity indicates that Egyptians must have been actively breeding cats at this time).
2,500 ya: Though cat export was banned by the Egyptians, the animals nevertheless have found their way to Greece. “Later, grain ships sailed directly from Alexandria to destinations throughout the Roman Empire, and cats are certain to have been onboard to keep the rats in check. Thus introduced, cats could have established colonies in port cities and then fanned out from there.”
2,000 ya: Cats follow Roman expansion and become common throughout Europe, though they curiously make it to the British Isles before the Romans.
almost 2,000 ya: Cats spread to Asia along trade routes. With no local wildcats with which to breed, domestic cats become genetically isolated here. Genetic drift leads to several “natural breeds,” including the Korat and Siamese.
500 ya: Christopher Columbus or other explorers bring domestic cats to the Americas.
400 ya: European explorers, probably, bring cats to Australia.
200 ya: Most modern breeds are developed on the British Isles in the 19th century. In 1871, the first fancy cat breeds compete in a cat show at the Crystal Palace in London. A Persian wins.
2 ya: The genome sequence of an Abyssinian cat named Cinnamon is published.
Hat tip: 3quarksdaily. (And a note to my readers: 3quarksdaily is looking for nominations for a prize for good science writing in the blogosphere. If you like what you read here, pick a few of your favorite posts and nominate them. Where to begin? Try our Must Reads category.)
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