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Evidence of 'missing link' in domestication of cats found in China

Evidence of 'missing link' in domestication of world's favourite pet has been found in ancient village in Shaanxi, surprised researchers reveal

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 9:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 December, 2013, 4:34am

Archaeologists in China have unearthed the first clear evidence of cats living among humans as semi-domesticated mousers about 5,300 years ago.

The discovery provides the "missing link" in the story of the domestication of the world's most popular pet, experts said.

It supports the long-held view that cats began their symbiotic relationship with people following the advent of agriculture, many thousands of years after dogs were tamed by nomadic hunter-gatherers.

But an ancient Chinese village was the last place researchers expected to find such evidence, said the report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This was a very unexpected find," said study co-author Fiona Marshall, a zooarchaeologist at Washington University in the American city of St Louis.

Today, every domestic cat in the world - whether it's howling in a back alley, starring in a YouTube video or climbing into an empty box in your living room - is descended from a single sub-species of Middle Eastern wildcat known as Felis silvestris lybica.

Marshall and her colleagues note that the ancient village of Quanhucun, in Shaanxi province, is far beyond the natural range of the subspecies and raises the question of just how the cats got there.

Marshall and her colleagues hope DNA analysis will clarify matters.

The new discovery consisted of eight fossilised bones from at least two felines that were found in ancient refuse pits along with other animal remains, pottery shards and tools.

The bones in the pits accumulated over about 200 years, the researchers wrote.

They emphasised several factors that suggest the remains belonged to cats that had developed a unique relationship with long-ago farmers.

The bones are comparable in size to those of European house cats, but smaller than those of European wildcats, they said.

A partial jawbone from one of the Quanhucun cats had very worn teeth, suggesting it was quite old and would have needed help to survive to such a ripe age, they added.

Other indications come in the form of isotope analysis.

By examining the ratio of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in bone collagen, scientists can determine where an animal fell in the food chain and whether its diet consisted mostly of plants or of meat. Tests showed that one of the Quanhucun cats appeared to eat more millet than would be expected of a carnivore living in the wild.

This raised "the possibility that this cat was unable to hunt and scavenged for discarded human food or that it was looked after and fed by people", the study authors wrote.

Scientists have speculated for many years that the process of cat domestication was related to agriculture.

Wildcats, they surmised, were probably drawn to farming settlements by the promise of food scraps and a ready supply of rats and mice.

Prehistoric humans probably tolerated the cats for their vermin-hunting prowess and allowed them to stick around.

The oldest evidence of a special bond between the two species dates back 9,500 years to the island of Cyprus.

There, archaeologists discovered the full skeleton of a wildcat buried near a human. The proximity of the two skeletons suggests the cat might have been tamed, experts said.

Until now, the next-oldest record of cats living with people came from ancient Egypt, where 4,000-year-old tomb paintings and writings described cats being kept as pets in the homes of the wealthy.

Unlike the Egyptian cats, which were often depicted sitting under chairs, the cats of Quanhucun were hardly house cats.

They were probably more akin to the cats that populate today's parking garages - creatures wary of people but also reliant on them for an occasional handout or carelessly dropped garbage.

"There is nothing to show us that there was anything more than an alley cat type of relationship in the Chinese village," Marshall said.

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