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article imageStudy shows cats may have been domesticated more than once

By Karen Graham     Feb 7, 2016 in Science
The rise of the domesticated house cat may have been inevitable, according to a new study that found ancient Chinese farmers were domesticating leopard cats 5,000 years ago, a different species from cats domesticated in the Middle East 10,000 years ago.
The interesting possibility raised by the new findings suggests that cats moved closer to man as he started farming, bringing with them a skill useful to farmers as they kept small animals and rodents under control.
The feline species found in China were a different species than the house cat we are familiar with today. Today's cats, Felis catus, descend from the Central Asian wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, native to the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
It is believed that humans and cats first became comfortable with each other during the dawn of agriculture, some 10,000 years ago. A cat was found buried in a human's grave in a 9,500-year-old Neolithic settlement in Cyprus. And of course, many cat burials dating back 8,000 years have been found in a cemetery in Hierakonpolis, in Egypt.
Felis sylvestris lybica - Mara  Tanzania.
Felis sylvestris lybica - Mara, Tanzania.
David Bygott/EOL
The leopard cats of China
A team of researchers, led by Jean-Denis Vigne of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, examined five cat jawbones found at archaeological sites in China's Shaanxi and Henan provinces, dating from 3500 to 2900 BC. They found that all five of the mandibles closely resembled the jawbones of the leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis, a species that still lives in the region today.
In the study, the researchers employed a technique called geometric morphometrics, that uses a computer to take thousands of measurements on the size and shape of the bones. All of the bones belonged to one species, leopard cats, reports Science Magazine.
The middle of the story is still intriguing
Carlos Driscoll, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute, who was not in the study, but has studied cat genetics, said, "That the cats turned out to be Asian leopard cats is not really a surprise. Had the cats actually been F. silvestris the story would have been much more complicated, interesting and important." But he also adds that the study is still important because we now know the end of the story, even if we don't know the middle of the story.
Prionailurus bengalensis  the Leopard cat of China.
Prionailurus bengalensis, the Leopard cat of China.
If you are wondering if the leopard cat is in some way part of the ancestry of today's modern house cat, the answer is no. At some point in time, leopard cats were replaced by F. silvestris as the cat of choice in China. And that is where the middle of the story is incomplete. Why were leopard cats replaced?
The earliest record of F. catus found in China dates to the Tang Dynasty, A.D. 618 to 907, according to the researchers. But when did they arrive? CNRSsuggests that the species arrived in China along the Silk Road, traveling between the Roman empire and the Han empires.
Driscoll throws out another reason for the leopard cat bones, saying they could be a fluke, suggesting the animals were wild and caught during a hunting expedition and tamed. Referring to one femur bone that showed a healed fracture, Driscoll said, "It could be that the cat with a broken femur was caught in a snare, broke its leg, but was kept alive as a curiosity or a pet."
Two domestication events? If this were to be true, then other leopard cat skeletal remains should have been found in other locations. What do you think about two domestications? Let us know.
More about leopard cats, two domestication events, ancient chinese, Middle East, Agriculture
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