Genetic study links domestic cats to wild ancestors 100,000 years ago

They were revered in ancient Egypt and are doted over in modern Britain. Now a study has revealed that the domestic cat is descended from a type of wildcat that lived in the Middle East thousands of years ago.

Scientists have traced the ancestry of all domestic cats alive today back to just five female wildcats that lived in the Fertile Crescent region of what is now Iraq and Syria. A study of feline DNA shows that cats were domesticated from their wild cousins much earlier than previously believed and that humans must have transported them around the world from their Middle Eastern homeland.

The study analysed the DNA of nearly a thousand cats - domestic and wild - from countries as far apart as China and Scotland in an attempt to identify the closest living relatives of the pet cat, Felis silvestris catus.

Scientists used both the DNA from inside the cell nucleus, which is inherited from both mothers and fathers, as well as DNA from the mitochondria structures outside the cell nucleus, which is inherited only from females. Professor David Macdonald, director of the Wildlife Conservation Unit at Oxford University, said that one of the most important findings was the discovery that domestic cats have a much older history than previously supposed.

"In our studies of mitochondrial DNA from these cats we found five distinct lineages dating back 100,000 years prior to any archaeological record of cat domestication," Professor Macdonald said.

"These appear to come from at least five female cats from the Near East whose descendants have been transported across the world by humans," he said.

A burial site in Cyprus dating to 7,500BC, with a human skeleton lying next to the skeleton of a cat, is the earliest archaeological record of feline domestication. There are no native wildcats on Cyprus so the cat must have been taken there by humans.

However, the latest DNA findings, published in the journal Science, suggest that cat domestication occurred much earlier than this and probably came about initially as a result of cats scavenging for food near human settlements. With the rise of agriculture, cats proved useful at guarding grain stores against rats and mice.

The study has also identified a genetic marker for the Scottish wildcat, which is endangered because breeding with domestic cats is diluting its gene pool. Scientists will now be able to work out how many Scottish wildcats are left.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
News
The spider makes its break for freedom
VIDEO
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
books
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Recruitment Genius: Concierge and Porter

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a customer focused, pro...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer / Front-End Designer - City of London

£27000 - £33000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End Devel...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Customer Support Technician

£15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Waterlooville based softwa...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot