A fancy dressed cat takes part in the animal carnival parade at Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on February 12, 2012. AFP PHOTO / Christophe Simon (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)
A pet that spits and claws at a friendly hand, then yowls in the yard until dawn raises an ungracious thought: Are cats really domesticated? Scientists say yes, but they also admit they know little about how and when felines came to live with people.
Now scientists excavating a Stone Age village in China have recovered a rare and valuable snapshot of cats in the early stage of their relationship with our own species. The researchers say the new findings are the oldest known indication of cats benefiting from their association with people, which is the first step on the road to domestication.
"What's really exciting about this study is it's the first evidence that shows us the processes by which cats came to live with humans," says Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St. Louis, an author of the new study. "Clearly they were the animals of farmers" - unlike dogs, which were domesticated by hunter-gatherers thousands of years before cats and humans began their complex alliance.
As could be expected from a creature of mystery, the cat has left few solid clues to its route to domestication. Genetic studies reveal that all domestic cats trace their roots to the Near Eastern wild cat, making the Near East one site of domestication as well as a cradle of agriculture. On the island of Cyprus, a wild cat was deliberately buried close to a high-status human some 9,500 years ago, suggesting that people had a special feeling for felines even then. Egyptian paintings from roughly 4,000 years ago clearly show people caring for cats. What happened in between is unclear.
Now bones and other finds from Quanhucan, a farming village in central China, are filling the gap. When researchers combed through Quanhucan's garbage pits, they turned up eight cat bones, two of them more than 5,000 years old. Other finds suggest the village would've been heaven for a hungry cat. Rodents had burrowed into the village's grain storage pits, and the villagers used grain-storage jars designed to keep rodents out. Also found were the bones of a zokor, a common mole-like rodent that eats the roots of crops, the team reports in the new issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Analysis of the cats' bones showed that one had eaten surprisingly large amounts of grain - not a favored food for carnivorous felines - perhaps by scavenging scraps, perhaps by being fed. The worn teeth of another cat showed it lived to old age. Did someone perhaps care for it?
The DNA of the Chinese cats hasn't been analyzed yet, leaving two possible explanations. Either these cats were domesticated cats that had been imported from the Near East, thousands of miles west, or they were Chinese wildcats in the middle of becoming domesticated.
"Wildcats are shy animals," says University of Missouri geneticist Leslie Lyons, who was not involved with the new research. "They're probably coming close to human settlement because of mice ... and (the villagers) are probably letting them do that." She says the results add feasibility to the idea that cats were domesticated in China as well as in the Near East.
The cats at the site certainly weren't treated like pets, says geneticist Carlos Driscoll of the Wildlife Institute of India. He points out the cats' bones were thrown into a trash pit along with the bones of other wild animals, and the cat that survived to a great age may have just been tolerated by humans rather than cared for by them.
All the same, the study "is a very interesting and evocative first chapter," Driscoll says. "The ancient DNA evidence is going to be the real punch line."