A study of ancient cat DNA that uses samples from different times and from around the world provides insights into the spread and evolution of these enigmatic creatures. Writing in Nature Ecology & Evolution, Ottoni et al. report their investigation of more than 200 cat remains and specimens, analysing a diverse range of material that included samples from 9,000-year-old bones, Egyptian cat mummies and modern African wildcats (C. Ottoni et al. Nature Ecol. Evol. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41559-017-0139; 2017).
Their analysis indicates that the global spread of cats began in the Middle Eastern Neolithic (approximately 10,000 to 5,000 years ago). Dogs are thought to have been domesticated around 14,000 years ago (L. A. F. Frantz et al. Science 352, 1228–1231; 2016). But, as befits their famed independence, cats lived alongside humans for thousands of years before becoming fully domesticated, and the authors note that early domesticated cats were probably bred as pest-control agents, not pets.
The authors identified two major cat lineages that contributed to modern domestic cats. One of these lineages first appeared in southwest Asia, spreading into Europe by 4400 BC. The other lineage, which comes from African cats, occurred mainly in Egypt, and was present in DNA samples from Egyptian cat mummies. In Ancient Egypt, the cat was a respected creature, and Egyptians worshipped a deity represented by a cat (pictured: a statue of the goddess Bastet). The African cat lineage spread throughout the Mediterranean along trade routes (perhaps because cats were kept on ships to control vermin) during the first millennium BC.