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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

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. 

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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.

Eight cat bones from the village are more than 3,000 years older than any other evidence in China of cat domestication, she says. Feline remains have been unearthed from older archaeological sites: a 9,500-year-old human burial in Cyprus and a 5,500-year-old grave in Egypt. Yet there’s hardly any evidence of what process turned skittish, territorial loners into the tolerant human companions that appear in paintings from Egypt around 4,000 years ago.

At the Chinese village, a quirk of plant metabolism let researchers test the idea that grain farming drew cats and people together. The villagers there raised imported species of millet, which capture solar energy with what’s called C4 photosynthesis.

Eating C4 plants raises concentrations of a certain form of carbon in bones. And that distinctive rise showed up in the remains of the village’s people, pigs, dogs — and cats — the researchers report. In contrast, wild animals such as deer and hares that ate native plants weren’t souped-up with unusual carbon.

One cat seems to have scrounged, or perhaps been fed, substantial millet-based food. But otherwise the cats probably caught rodents that had filched people’s grain stores. How much the villagers encouraged the cats isn’t known. The bones, found in piles of rubbish, could indicate people were eating the cats.

Just what kind of small cats these were isn’t clear from the battered feline bones. If they were China’s native subspecies of the wildcat, Felis silvestris, then their domestication didn’t lead to modern housecats. Today’s kitty DNA looks more closely related to the Near Eastern subspecies’ DNA than to the Chinese one’s, says Carlos Driscoll of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

But there might be a connection if ancient Near Eastern cats had unexpectedly reached China, Driscoll says. Quanhucun would be a good spot for researchers to look for them because the village lies toward the eastern end of the ancient Eurasian route called the Silk Road where trade mingled East and West.

DNA studies of the cat bones may resolve whether they’re imports or the native subspecies. “Either way it’s an exciting story,” Driscoll says.

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