If you’ve ever been owned by a cat (or have been given the honor of being allowed to live alongside one), you know they will do whatever they want to do. So it may come as no surprise that cats domesticated themselves. They just decided to move in with humans – and not much about them has changed since that day.
How do we know cats domesticated themselves?
If you’re skeptical about this and how we know it (or even what it all means), that’s fair.
Here’s the thing – when humans domesticate animals, we choose certain characteristics that we like about them, and the animals that end up allowing this kind of domestication often have certain kind of characteristics (whether it’s size, a tendency to be docile, etc.). Those characteristics are, to some extent, encoded in their genomes. So if we look at the genomes of those animals over thousands of years, we should see changes that indicate the selection of certain traits.
It’s not much different than modern dog breeding – purebred dogs are specifically bred to have specific genes that make them look or act a certain way. Their environment plays a role too, but we can see a lot of characteristics in their genomes.
Cat genomes? Let’s just say they haven’t changed much at all. And we know that because cats have been cherished and worshipped for thousands of years and therefore buried in ways that allow us to collect even their ancient DNA.
What do cat genomes tell us about domestication?
Of course, we can’t go back in time to check our work, but we can do pretty comprehensive studies on cats from all over the world and from different time periods. And that’s what a group of scientists did. They published their study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution under the not-very-catchy title “The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world.” It doesn’t sound riveting, but it’s pretty cool (especially if someone summarizes it for you).
Our favorite line comes from National Geographic’s write-up on the work (cited below), noting that “[cats’] genes have changed little from those of wildcats, apart from picking up one recent tweak: the distinctive stripes and dots of the tabby cat.”
But here’s the gist of it: The researchers looked at the DNA of over 200 cats. These cats spanned a timeline of 9,000 years, the ancient cats coming from Rome and Egypt. They found that there were two major cat lineages that came together to make modern housecats. Normally, you’d expect to see A LOT more diversity than that.
Early cats likely spread into Europe from southwest Asia around 4400 BCE and hung out with people in early farming communities. Apparently, cats just decided people were largely ok to be around, and people decided cats were ok because they killed rodents that interfered with crops. If anyone tried to do anything more to domesticate cats, they clearly failed.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship. And maybe cats didn’t even like people but just liked the rodent populations we attracted. We’ll never know. But in any case, we all just grew up alongside each other. Humans “let” cats domesticate themselves. (Frankly, our guess is that cats were in charge the whole time.) — WTF fun facts