Cats owe their playful nature to the Egyptians

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They often have a funny way of showing their affection, but domestic cats may owe their love of curling up on human laps to the ancient Egyptians.

A genetic study on feline remains dating back 9,000 years has revealed a lineage of cats from Egypt began spreading around the world around 3,000 years ago.

These creatures interbred with local animals and left distinct DNA that persist in our pets to this day.

Researchers believe ancient Egyptians and those trading with them may have transported these cats in ships to far off ports, allowing the animals to pass on genes that made their descendants friendlier to humans.

The research, which is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, gives the first detailed look at the genetics underlying early cat domestication.

Unlike dogs, which were domesticated at least 14,600 years ago, cat were domesticated relatively late.

Cat remains have been found buried alongside human remains in Cyprus from 7,500BC, suggesting they were already being tamed by early neolithic farmers.

It is thought wildcats initially began living alongside humans to take advantage of the rodents that were attracted to early Stone Age farms and were tamed by humans leaving food for them.

The scientists behind the research believe the Egyptian cats were so successful because they had developed traits that made them better ‘companions’ than other types of wildcat.

They say ancient Egyptians and those trading with them may have transported these cats in ships to far off ports, allowing the animals to pass on genes that made their descendants friendlier to humans.

Dr Eva-Maria Geigl, a molecular anthropologist at the Jacques Monod Institute in Paris and research director at the French National Research Centre CNRS, said: ‘The peculiar social and cultural context of the Egyptian society may have facilitated the evolution of a more ‘friendly’ disposition of cats towards humans.

‘Their popularity as a companion animal, together with its role as pest control agent on ships, might have determined the success of the Egyptian cat in spreading along trade routes.’

The research, which is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, gives the first detailed look at the genetics underlying early cat domestication.

Unlike dogs, which were domesticated at least 14,600 years ago, cat were domesticated relatively late.

Cat remains have been found buried alongside human remains in Cyprus from 7,500BC, suggesting they were already being tamed by early neolithic farmers.

Researchers found a species of wildcat that was prevalent in Anatolia, in the northeast of modern-day Turkey, from around 8,000BC but genes from these animals began spreading into Europe, reaching Bulgaria by 4,400BC, Romania by 3,200BC and Greece by 1,200BC.

They say this suggests humans were moving these cats, perhaps to help them combat pests as they established farming communities.

Cats are also known to have been living in close quarters with people in ancient Egypt from at least 3,700BC, and a number of skeletons have been found in cemeteries dating from that period.

But from around 800BC, the researchers say genes from a lineage of Egyptian cats, known as IV-C, began spreading to other parts of the world including Bulgaria, Jordan and Turkey.

Between the fifth and 13th century this lineage came to dominate in Europe, accounting for 78 per cent of the ancient cat remains, while also being found in 46 per cent of cats from south west Asia.

It is thought wildcats initially began living alongside humans to take advantage of the rodents that were attracted to early Stone Age farms and were tamed by humans leaving food for them.

Dr Geigl and her colleagues tested the remains of 352 ancient cats – including several Egyptian cat mummies – dating back to around 9,000 years ago.

They found a species of wildcat that was prevalent in Anatolia, in the northeast of modern-day Turkey, from around 8,000BC but genes from these animals began spreading into Europe, reaching Bulgaria by 4,400BC, Romania by 3,200BC and Greece by 1,200BC.

They say this suggests humans were moving these cats, perhaps to help them combat pests as they established farming communities.

Cats are also known to have been living in close quarters with people in ancient Egypt from at least 3,700BC, and a number of skeletons have been found in cemeteries dating from that period.

But from around 800BC, the researchers say genes from a lineage of Egyptian cats, known as IV-C, began spreading to other parts of the world including Bulgaria, Jordan and Turkey.

Between the fifth and 13th century this lineage came to dominate in Europe, accounting for 78 per cent of the ancient cat remains, while also being found in 46 per cent of cats from south west Asia.

Writing in the journal, Dr Geigl and her colleagues said these cats appear to have been extremely popular, perhaps due to changes in their genetic make up that made them tamer and more sociable than other cats.

This led to a ‘tightening of the human-cat relationship’ that persists to this day.

Cats appear in paintings and carvings on the walls of many ancient Egyptian tombs, often depicting the animals under chairs and hinting at their tameness. The ancient Egyptians are also thought to have worshipped cats.

Dr Geigl said: ‘In Egypt cats were at total ease in domestic contexts, as witnessed by the depiction of the ‘cat under the chair’ theme already more than 3,000 years ago.

‘From their role of pest control agents that characterised their relationship with humans since the Neolithic, it is possible that cats in Egypt became the companions that we know today.

‘But the Near Eastern cat did not disappear but maybe they mixed. 

‘Cats from two different sources, the Near East during the Neolithic and Egypt during the Classical/Roma era, contributed to the genetic make-up of modern domestic cats.’

These early cats also may not have looked like the domestic cats we see today but instead had striped mackerel-like coats.

The researchers also found the distinctive tabby markings that are present on nearly 80 per cent of domestic cats today only began appearing in the Middle Ages.

These larger blotch-like patterns are caused by a recessive mutation and so would only become so common if they had been specifically selected for.

The researchers found it first appeared in southwest Asia and then spread through Europe and Africa.

Dr Geigl said: ‘This was certainly the result of artificial selection processes. Humans most likely started to select this mutation without a real utilitarian sake, but just for a desire to possess something rare, particularly when it concerned a pet.

‘The coat colour also individualises an animal so that it is a kind of label indicating that it belongs to a specific owner.’