The cat has long been important to human societies as a pest-control agent, object of symbolic value and companion animal, but little is known about its domestication process and early anthropogenic dispersal. Here we show, using ancient DNA analysis of geographically and temporally widespread archaeological cat remains, that both the Near Eastern and Egyptian populations of Felis silvestris lybica contributed to the gene pool of the domestic cat at different historical times. While the cat’s worldwide conquest began during the Neolithic period in the Near East, its dispersal gained momentum during the Classical period, when the Egyptian cat successfully spread throughout the Old World. The expansion patterns and ranges suggest dispersal along human maritime and terrestrial routes of trade and connectivity. A coat-colour variant was found at high frequency only after the Middle Ages, suggesting that directed breeding of cats occurred later than with most other domesticated animals.

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This research has been funded by the IAP program (BELSPO), the KU Leuven BOF Centre of Excellence Financing on CAS, and the CNRS (T.G. and E.-M.G.). The high-containment laboratory of the Institut Jacques Monod, Paris was supported by a grant to E.-M.G. from the University Paris Diderot, ARS 2016-2018. The sequencing facility of the Institut Jacques Monod, Paris, and J.D., were supported by grants to T.G. from the University Paris Diderot, the ‘Fondation pour la Recherche Médicale’ (DGE20111123014), and the ‘Région Ile-de-France’ (grant 11015901). C.O. was supported by the FWO mobility program (V4.519.11N, K2.197.14N, K2.057.14N). Faunal research carried out by J.P. and team in Anatolia received funding by the German Research Foundation (DFG PE424/10-1,2). Research by N.Bo. M.E.P., and A.C. was supported by an ERC grant (206148) and UK NERC Radiocarbon Facility grant (NF/2012/2/4). The archaeological and archaeozoological research conducted by A.Bă. and A. Bo. was supported by the Romanian National Authority for Scientific Research, UEFISCDI (PN-II-ID-PCE-2011-3-1015 and PN-II-RU-TE-2014-4-0519). Research at Songo Mnara was directed by S. Wynne-Jones and J. Fleisher with support from the National Science Foundation (BCS1123091) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/J502716/1). We thank G. Larson and E. A. Bennett for critical reading of the manuscript; the Ufficio Beni Archeologici della Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano for granting access to the archaeological material of Galgenbühel/Dos de la Forca and J. Crezzini for help in sampling; M.-A. Félix, Institut Jacques Monod and École Normale Supérieure, Paris, for granting access to the pyrosequencer; M. Larmuseau and A. Van Geystelen for discussions and assistance with nuclear SNP analyses; K. Knaepen, M. Coomans, and A. Giucca for support in laboratory procedures in Leuven; and J. Nackaerts of the veterinary hospital Kruisbos (Wezemaal, Belgium) for providing cat blood samples. We also thank the curators of the following collections for facilitating access to the material under their care and the permission to take tissue samples: the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren, Belgium), the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and Musée du Louvre (Paris, France), the British Museum and Natural History Museum (London, UK) and the Bavarian State Collection of Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy (Munich, Germany).

Author information

Author notes

    • Claudio Ottoni
    •  & Laura Llorente

    Present addresses: Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), Department of Biosciences, University of Oslo, NO-0316 Oslo, Norway (C.O.); BioArch, Department of Archaeology, University of York, York YO10 5NG, UK (L.L).

    • Thierry Grange
    •  & Eva-Maria Geigl

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. KU Leuven—University of Leuven, Department of Imaging and Pathology, Center for Archaeological Sciences; University Hospitals Leuven, Laboratory of Forensic Genetics and Molecular Archaeology, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium.

    • Claudio Ottoni
    •  & Ronny Decorte
  2. Institut Jacques Monod, UMR 7592, CNRS and University Paris Diderot, F-75013 Paris, France.

    • Claudio Ottoni
    • , Julien Daligault
    • , Silvia Guimaraes
    • , Thierry Grange
    •  & Eva-Maria Geigl
  3. Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, B-1000 Brussels, Belgium.

    • Wim Van Neer
    •  & Bea De Cupere
  4. KU Leuven—University of Leuven, Department of Biology, Laboratory of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Genomics, Center of Archaeological Sciences, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium.

    • Wim Van Neer
  5. Institute of Palaeoanatomy, Domestication Research and the History of Veterinary Medicine, Ludwig-Maximilian University, D-80539 Munich, Germany.

    • Joris Peters
  6. Bavarian Natural History Collections, Bavarian State Collection of Anthropology and Palaeoanatomy, D-80333 Munich, Germany.

    • Joris Peters
  7. National Museum of Natural History at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, BG-1000 Sofia, Bulgaria.

    • Nikolai Spassov
  8. Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Cambridge, 02138 Massachusetts, USA.

    • Mary E. Prendergast
  9. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena D-07743, Germany.

    • Nicole Boivin
  10. Laboratorio de Arquezoología, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, E-28049 Madrid, Spain.

    • Arturo Morales-Muñiz
    •  & Laura Llorente
  11. National History Museum of Romania, RO-030026 Bucharest, Romania.

    • Adrian Bălăşescu
  12. Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology, Free University Berlin, D-14195 Berlin, Germany.

    • Cornelia Becker
  13. German Archaeological Institute, D-14195 Berlin, Germany.

    • Norbert Benecke
  14. ‘Vasile Pârvan’ Institute of Archaeology of the Romanian Academy, RO-010667 Bucharest, Romania.

    • Adina Boroneant
  15. Groningen Institute of Archaeology, University of Groningen, NL-9712 ER Groningen, the Netherlands.

    • Hijlke Buitenhuis
    •  & Jwana Chahoud
  16. Archéorient; CNRS/UMR 5133, Université Lumière Lyon II, F-69007 Lyon, France.

    • Jwana Chahoud
  17. Natural History Museum, Lebanese University, LB-1107-2020 Beirut, Lebanon.

    • Jwana Chahoud
  18. School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, AU-4072 Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia.

    • Alison Crowther
  19. Institute of Zoology, National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, AM-0019 Yerevan, Armenia.

    • Nina Manaseryan
  20. Labex Resmed, Université Paris IV la Sorbonne, F-75005 Paris, France.

    • Hervé Monchot
  21. Istanbul University, Osteoarchaeology Practice and Research Center, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, TR-34320 Avcilar-Istanbul, Turkey.

    • Vedat Onar
  22. Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Sciences, PL-61-712 Poznań, Poland.

    • Marta Osypińska
  23. Archéologie Alsace, F-67600 Sélestat, and UMR 7041, ArScan, Nanterre, France.

    • Olivier Putelat
  24. Department of Anthropology, Rice University, Houston, Texas 77005, USA.

    • Eréndira M. Quintana Morales
  25. Natural History Museum of Geneva, CH-1208 Genève, Switzerland.

    • Jacqueline Studer
  26. Soprintendenza Archeologia della Toscana, I-50121 Firenze, Italy.

    • Ursula Wierer


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The project was initiated by W.V.N., E.-M.G., C.O., T.G. and R.D. The ancient DNA study was conceived and designed by T.G., E.-M.G. and C.O. C.O. carried out the molecular laboratory work, with support of S.G. and analysed the data. J.D. generated the aMPlex Torrent data. The archaeological bone samples were provided by W.V.N., B.D.C., J.P., N.S., M.E.P., N.Bo., A.M.-M., A.Bă., C.B., N.Be., A.Bo., H.B., J.C., A.C., L.L., N.M., H.M., V.O., M.O., M.O., O.P., E.M.Q.M., J.S., U.W., and W.V.N. and B.D.C. were responsible for their curation and archaeozoological recording. The authors’ list from A.Ba. to U.W. is in alphabetical order. C.O., E.M.G. and T.G. wrote the paper. W.V.N., B.D.C., J.P., N.S., M.E.P., N.Bo., A.M.-M. contributed to further discussion about the interpretation of the data and the outline of the paper. N.Bo. and M.E.P. revised the English. All the authors gave final approval for publication.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Claudio Ottoni or Thierry Grange or Eva-Maria Geigl.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods; Supplementary References; Supplementary Figures 1–5; Supplementary Tables 1–5

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data 1,2

    Data 1: List of all the ancient and modern samples analysed in this study. Data 2: List of samples successfully analysed in this study and detailed information about the samples, the dating, the genotyping procedures followed, the mtDNA haplotypes and the polymorphic states of the three nuclear markers investigated.

Zip files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Code

    Cat aMPlex Torrent bioinformatic tools. A bash script and accessory fasta and gff files for data analysis of the aMPlex Torrent data.