Cats colonized most of the planet by boat

The hitchhiker’s guide to colonizing.
The hitchhiker’s guide to colonizing.
Image: Thomas Peter/Reuters
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Dogs may be man’s best friend but cats too have earned a place in our hearts and homes. Cats, it seems, colonized the planet by doing odd jobs for farmers and hitching rides on sailing ships. Or, at least that’s what new research on feline DNA suggests.

The most comprehensive study of cat DNA ever done, presented at the International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, UK on Sept. 15 and reported in Nature, sheds light on the mysterious domesticated cat. ”We don’t know the history of ancient cats. We do not know their origin, we don’t know how their dispersal occurred,” said one of the lead researchers, Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris. But by analyzing cat DNA from ancient archaeological sites, researchers were able to shed light on feline domestication and migration.

Geigl and her team gathered and studied mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 209 cats found at 30 archaeological sites in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The oldest samples dated back about 10,000 years to the prehistoric Mesolithic period, when people were still hunting and gathering. The most recent samples were from the 18th century.

Analysis of the DNA samples led the team to the conclusion that cat populations likely grew in two waves:

Middle Eastern wild cats with one mitochondrial lineage seem to have expanded with early farming communities to the eastern Mediterranean. The utility of felines, Geigl believes, became clear to people there when the first farmers began storing grains, which attracted rodents. Humans figured out that cats keep mice away, leading to efforts to domesticate the wild creatures.

Another wave of cats, descended from those in Egypt, appears to have spread quickly around Eurasia and Africa thousands of years later. A mitochondrial lineage common in Egyptian cat mummies was found in feline DNA samples from Bulgaria, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa, all dating back to about the same period between 400 BC and 400 AD.  This same lineage was found in feline samples at a Viking site from between the eighth and eleventh century. Geiger posits that, like farmers, sailors kept cats on their ships to keep rodents in check.

These findings, Geigl told ABC News, show that in prehistoric times cats from the Near East and in classical times cats from Egypt traveled with humans throughout the world. “They were the ancestors [of] our present-day domestic cats all over the world,” she explained.

Cat popularity is perhaps as strong as it’s ever been. Millennials, the Washington Post reported on Sept. 15, are overwhelmingly pet owners. Over half of Americans in their thirties have cats.

Today, felines aren’t necessarily kept for rodent control. But having a cat is still practical, particularly for a generation less likely than their baby boomer parents to get married, have kids, own a home, or to have steady work. After all, cats are reliable companions in a pretty lonely and increasingly uncertain world.