The rise of cats may have been inevitable. That’s one intriguing interpretation of a new study, which finds that early Chinese farmers may have domesticated wild felines known as leopard cats more than 5000 years ago. If true, this would indicate that cats were domesticated more than once—in China, and 5000 years earlier in the Middle East. It would also suggest that the rise of farming was destined to give rise to the house cat.
“This is very important work that should have a great impact,” says Fiona Marshall, a zooarchaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri. Cats, she notes, largely domesticated themselves, and if this happened twice it could indicate that a whole host of animals—from donkeys to sheep—may have become domesticated with less human involvement than previously thought. “This is the leading edge in a shift in thinking about domestication processes.”
Marshall was not involved in the new study, but a few years ago she helped analyze eight cat bones unearthed from Quanhucun, an early millet farming village in central China. The bones—including a pelvis and mandible—dated to about 5300 years ago, and had been dug from the site in 2001. All contained forms of carbon and nitrogen that indicated that the felines ate small animals, which in turn had eaten grain. This supported a longstanding hypothesis about how cats became domesticated: Wild cats slunk into ancient farming villages to hunt rats and mice, and humans kept them around to combat these crop-destroying rodents. Indeed, one of the Quanhucun cats, based on the wear of its teeth, appeared to be an older individual, perhaps suggesting that people had taken care of it.
But a big question remained. Were the Quanhucun cats related to Near Eastern wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica), the ancestors of today’s house cat and the first cats to be domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East? Or were they a different species of feline, perhaps one of the small local wildcats such as the Central Asian wildcat (Felis silvestris ornata) or the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis)? If the former, the cats likely came to Chinese farming villages via ancient trade routes and were already domesticated. If the latter, Chinese villagers may have embarked on a completely separate domestication of the cat from a local species.
And that’s indeed what the new study suggests. Scientists led by Jean-Denis Vigne, the director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, performed additional analysis on the Quanhucun bones, as well as bones from two other ancient Chinese farming sites. They focused specifically on the mandibles, using a technique called geometric morphometrics, which employs a computer to take thousands of measurements of the size and shape of bones to determine what species they belong to. All of the bones unequivocally belonged to leopard cats, not a Near Eastern species, the team concludes this month in PLOS ONE.
Several lines of evidence lead Vigne to believe the cats weren’t just wild neighbors, but rather in the early stages of domestication. For one, the cats are a bit smaller than their wild leopard cat relatives, a hallmark of domestication. Also, at least one cat was buried as a complete body. “That’s evidence of special treatment,” and that it was not butchered (and eaten), he says. “Even if what we’re seeing here is not full domestication, it’s an intensification of the relationship between cats and humans.”
“It’s very convincing,” says Guy Bar-Oz, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel who was not involved with the work. Many other local animals could have become domesticated in these villages, he says, but cats may have been at an advantage because they’re obsessed with killing small animals, a skill useful to people at the time. “My cat still brings me birds even though she’s obese, because she has this strong instinct.” Marshall says cats may have had another leg up because they were nocturnal. “They could hunt at night and not have to worry about competing with dogs, which were more active during the day.”
Of all the domesticated animals, only pigs are believed to have been domesticated more than once. The fact that we might be seeing at least two separate domestications of cats—in different parts of the world, at different times, and from different species—suggests that farming may have been bound to give us the house cat, Vigne says. “The domestication of cats is a very special thing in the annals of domestication.”
Still, even if the Quanhucun cats were on the road to domestication, they didn’t last. None of today’s house cats share their genes, save for the Bengal breed, which was created by mating house cats with leopard cats in the 1960s to give them a wilder look. Marshall thinks the introduction of domestic cats from elsewhere in the world may have ended local experiments with taming cats. House cats resembling modern cats appear in paintings from the Tang dynasty, which began in the year 618, and they may have been a lot more docile and useful than their leopard cat counterparts, she says. As cats evolved, they changed their vocalizations to better “communicate” with people and they became more adept at reading human cues, Marshall notes. “They may just have been easier to have around.”