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Cats Were First Domesticated in China

Dec 17, 2013 05:22 AM EST

A Study of 5,000-year-old cat bones shows that felines were first domesticated in the village of Quanhucun, China.

The house cat is one of the most popular pets in the world. About 600 million of these felines currently live with humans.

But, when did we start adopting these furry creatures?

The answer is difficult to find because unlike dogs, cats didn't evolve to look different from their feline relatives. This similarity in DNA makes it tough for scientists to find out when modern domestic cat (Felus catus) split from wild cat species.

Previously, researchers believed early Egyptians domesticated cats. By 1700 BC, cats had obtained god-like status in Egypt and were even mummified.

 The latest study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and colleagues shows that cats were living with the Chinese about 5,300 years ago.

For the study, researchers used radiocarbon dating and isotopic analyses of traces of carbon and nitrogen in bones of cats, dogs, deer and other animals excavated near Quanhucan.

Researchers found that rodents, pigs and dogs were all eating millet. Also, cats were preying on these rodents.

"Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats," Fiona Marshall, PhD, a professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, according to a news release. Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits."

But, that was not all. One of the cat fossils found at the site had aged quite well and was probably looked after by humans. Another cat ate fewer animals, suggesting that it lived off food provided by humans.

Marshall added that there is yet no DNA evidence backing the idea that the Near Eastern Wildcat is the ancestor of cats found in Quanhucun.

"We do not yet know whether these cats came to China from the Near East, whether they interbred with Chinese wild-cat species, or even whether cats from China played a previously unsuspected role in domestication," Marshall said in a news release.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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