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
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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: Freight Forward Senior Operator

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This logistics firm are looking...

Recruitment Genius: Lead Marketing Specialist

£34500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A lead marketing specialist is required ...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician - 2nd / 3rd Line

£26000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Technician is req...

Recruitment Genius: Folder Gluer Operator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: There will be a number of exciting opportuniti...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map