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China trumps Near East for signs of most ancient farm cats

Earliest evidence found for grain as a force in feline domestication

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10:10am, December 17, 2013

WILD START  The puzzle of how the skittish loners of wild Felis silvestris (one shown) evolved to become one of the world’s most popular pets has taken a new twist. The discovery of ancient farm cats in China indicates that grain agriculture played an important role in feline domestication. 

Housecat history has unexpectedly leapt from the Near East into ancient China.

Small cats hunted grain-thieving rodents around the farming village of Quanhucun in central China about 5,300 years ago, reports Yaowu Hu of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. The Chinese cats may not be the oldest signs of beginning domestication or the source for today’s domesticated cats. But they do give the earliest evidence of grain farming as the possible pathway to domestication, Hu and his colleagues report December 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The location “couldn’t have been more surprising,” says study coauthor Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St. Louis, who studies animal domestication.

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