I enjoy hanging out with cats and have two feline companions that share my home. They provide entertainment (making me laugh as the cat chases her own tail), companionship (hanging out on the sofa with me), home security (taking down invading mice) and danger (tripping over my own cat—repeatedly). While I don’t think much of how cats evolved to enjoy (tolerate) human companions, I am grateful that my human ancestors and the feline ancestors came to a mutual agreement several thousand years ago. However, questions remain about who the cat ancestors are and when they became companion animals. Modern domesticated cats trace their genetic origins to Felis silvestris lybica found in southwest Asia and northern Africa. However, evidence from cat bones found in Neolithic Chinese villages over a period of 1,500 years suggests there may be more than one feline lineage that was domesticated.
The evidence for felid domestication in China about 5,300 years ago was detailed by Hue et al. in 2014 (1) and described in this blog post, including a smaller skeletal size that compared more closely with modern domestic cats than to wildcats. Vigne et al. sought to trace the origins of the felid remains described by Hue et al. as well as other felid skeletal remains found in two more recent Chinese Neolithic settlements in nearby areas (2).
Initial identification of the Chinese felid remains suggested a relationship with F. silvestris, the wildcat ancestor of modern cats. However, based on the known distribution of wildcats in modern-day Asia—assumed to have not changed significantly in the last 5,000 years—there were other potential options including the Northern Chinese subspecies of leopard cat (Prionailurus b. bengalensis) and the Central Asian wildcat (F. silvestris ornata). Vigne et al. wanted to determine if the domesticated Neolithic Chinese cats were derived from one of the local felid populations or the imported Northern Africa and Southwest Asia wildcat, F. silvestris lybica. The latter was an option as earlier evidence for close association between cats and humans has been found in Cyprus, including a 9,000-year-old burial of a cat next to a human. The several specimens found in Cyprus were 4,000 years older than the Chinese evidence of domestication and thus, these early companion felids potentially could have made their way to China over time.
To determine what relationship the skeletal remains from five Neolithic Chinese felids had with various cat species (the domestic cat F. catus and wildcat species leopard cat P. b. bengalensis, the European subspecies of wildcat F. s. silvestris, SW Asian and North African subspecies of wildcat F. s. lybica) Vigne et al. applied 11 two-dimensional landmarks to each mandible, analyzing a total of 101 mandibles. In addition, researchers applied the same landmark analysis to five 9,000-year-old mandibles from Cyprus that were previously identified as F. silvestris.
Interestingly, the mandibles from leopard cat and the European and the SW Asian wildcats clearly differ in shape but not size. Based the landmark analyses, the Chinese felid specimens were identified as leopard cat (P. bengalensis) and the mandibles from Cyprus were confirmed as wildcat F. silvestris. F. silvestris ornata was not included in this analysis due to a lack of specimens but Vigne et al. hypothesized that the Central Asian wildcat was not a candidate based on previous analysis that its cranial morphology was closest to the SW Asian/Northern African wildcat, and the Chinese cat mandibles did not match up with that of F. s. lybica.
The research published in PLOS ONE by Vigne et al. suggests the 11 landmarks on the mandibles of five probable domesticated cats from Neolithic Chinese settlements were derived from leopard cat rather than the SW Asian and Northern African wildcat. This suggests that wildcats were domesticated more than once during the last 9,000 years, but not all these domesticated felids survived to the modern era. I also infer that domestication may have been a localized event that could have occurred repeatedly, but the most successful domesticated cat seems to be that of Felis silvestris lybica, the wildcat ancestor of the cats we allow to share our lives and our homes in the modern era.
- Hu, Y., Hu, S., Wang, W., Wu, X., Marshall, F.B., Chen, X., Hou, L. and Wang, C. (2014) Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 111, 116–20.
- Vigne, J.D., Evin, A., Cucchi, T., Dai, L., Yu, C., Hu, S., Soulages, N., Wang, W., Sun, Z., Gao, J., Dobney, K. and Yuan, J. (2016) Earliest “Domestic” Cats in China Identified as Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). PLOS ONE 11, e0147295.