When thinking about where cats come from the most obvious answer might seem to be “another planet” but they are, in fact, of this world. One might imagine feline history to be as complicated as they are but really, it’s a pretty straightforward story–and one, that like everything else with cats, has also been almost entirely within their control.
Did Cats Evolve From Lions?
No, that’s a myth. All domesticated cats originated from the same ancient kitty, Felis silvestris lybica (or, African Wildcat) which is still found throughout Africa, southwest and central Asia, India, China, and Mongolia. Though the African Wildcat may sound fierce, it actually looks like an average domestic cat – though perhaps a tad bit larger.
In 2017, researcher Claudio Ottoni dove into the genetics of domesticated cats and found that all house cats are descended from this common ancestor. Their domestication took place in two periods: one in the Neolithic era in the Fertile Crescent and then later, in the Classical period, the domestication of cats accelerated in Egypt.
This first lineage began in the Fertile Crescent and spread southwest from Asia into Europe around 4400 B.C.E. The second period, in Egypt, spread from the Mediterranean and into the Old World around 1500 B.C.E.
How Did Cats Become Domesticated?
The answer here is deceivingly simple…and so very typical of cats: cats chose domestication. Researchers believe that the farming practices of the Fertile Crescent and in Egypt provided cats with easy access to prey, as rodents were attracted to crops. Cats simply began hanging around for the easy meal and people accepted them because they were doing farmers a great service. As the trade in agricultural products expanded, so did the ranges of these domesticated cats. Basically, they followed the food.
How Did Cats Get To The United Kingdom And North America?
Though they likely weren’t transported in such comfort as these lucky kitties it is believed that cats spread to the farther reaches of the globe by way of ships. As superior rodent control agents, ship’s kitties protected food stores. Researchers have found evidence that cats first set paw in port cities and spread from these into areas of higher agriculture.
How Did Specific Cat Breeds Develop?
Not surprisingly, it took a very long time for cats to decide to be domesticated enough that people could truly undertake selective breeding. It was only in the 19th century that “fancy breeds” came into being. Before that time the genes of domestic cats had barely changed at all from those of their African Wildcat relatives with one exception–the coat patterns of the tabby cat. The distinctive spots and stripes of tabbys began showing up in genes during the Ottoman Empire but it took until the 18th century for tabby markings to become prominent enough to inspire breeding for coat patterns.
Because the selective breeding of cats is such a recent thing in the feline genetic timeline, few genetically vigorous differences existed until modern times when cat fanciers created breeds such as Persian and Abyssinian. Currently the fancy cat people recognize just over 40 official “breeds” of cats, 80 percent of these being less than 100 years old (genetics-wise). All the other cats? Nearly identical genetics, still, to that common ancestor.
As a 2008 study in the journal Genomics, details, “The small subset of domestic cats that have undergone intensive artificial selection is the pedigreed (purebred) cats, which were bred to maintain or alter purely aesthetic traits. Of the 41 breeds recognized by the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA), 16 “natural breeds” are thought to be regional variants that predate the cat fancy. The remaining breeds were developed over the past 50 years and are usually defined as simple, single-gene variants derived from the natural breeds. This is in stark contrast to most other domesticated species that have undergone millennia of intense selection for complex behavioral, performance, or production traits involving complex gene interactions.”
Can a DNA Test Tell Me Where My Kitty Came From?
As you may have caught on from the above explanation, you’re likely not going to find out much about your cat from a DNA test. We’ve looked into feline DNA tests a bit and in addition to the fact that there is little they can tell you, this science is also quite new. If you really want to know the tiniest detail about your cat’s DNA, it might be worth waiting until the science is a little more robust.
Overall, the differences between domestic and wild cats simply became behavioral versus physical–the primary difference is that one chose a non-solitary life around humans, the other chose a solitary life in the wild.
Ottoni’s 2017 cat study co-author, evolutionary geneticist Eva-Maria Geigl, points out the very different historical process that dogs and cats underwent in terms of domestication; dogs were domesticated in order to perform specific tasks and this is what led to the diversity of dogs breeds we have in modern times. “I think that there was no need to subject cats to such a selection process since it was not necessary to change them,” Geigl tells National Geographic. “They were perfect as they were.”