Feline remains at ancient burial sites suggest that domestic cats existed in early societies in the Near East and Egypt. But scientists know little about how the animals advanced across the world.
Eva-Maria Geigl at the Institute Jacques Monod in Paris and her colleagues analysed mitochondrial DNA from 209 cats that lived between about 8000 BC and the twentieth century.
They found two distinct populations that contribute to modern domestic cats, one of which appeared in the Middle East and spread to Europe as early as 4400 BC. A separate lineage, initially common only to ancient Egyptian cats, spread to Europe and the Middle East from the fifth century AD onwards.
This move mirrors ancient trade routes, suggesting that a role as ship’s rat catcher might have helped cats to spread to Europe and beyond.