A cat-and-mouse game played
out in a Chinese village some 5 300 years ago is helping scientists understand
how wild felines transformed into the
tame pets we know today.
In fact, it was the cat's
appetite that started it down the path to domestication, scientists believe.
The grain stored by ancient farmers was a magnet for rodents. And that drew
wild cats into villages to hunt the little critters. Over time, wild cats
adapted to village life and became tamer around their human hosts.
That's the leading theory,
anyway, for how wild cats long ago were transformed and became ancestors of
today's house cats. That happened in the Middle East, rather than China. But
bones from the Chinese village back up the idea that felines took on the
pest-control job in ancient times, says researcher Fiona Marshall of Washington
University in St Louis.
Marshall is an author of a
report on the fossil research, published online Monday by the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences.
The study, focused on an
agricultural village in northern China, comes from a poorly understood time in
the history of cats. The first evidence of domesticated cats comes much later,
in Egyptian artwork from about 4000 years ago.
Filling the niche
Researchers found signs
that rodents were threatening the village grain supply. Storage vessels were
designed to keep them out, and rodents had burrowed into a grain-storage pit.
In the ancient feline
bones, chemical signatures indicated that the cats had eaten animals that in
turn had fed on millet, a grain crop known to be harvested by the villagers. So
apparently, the cats were indeed going after the rodents.
It's not yet clear whether
the cats were from a local wild population, or were already domesticated and
had been brought in from elsewhere, Marshall said. Either way, it shows that
ancient cats filled the niche at the heart of the hypothesis about how
domestication began, she said.
Greger Larson of Durham
University in England called the new work "an important step
forward". Few studies have focused on how cats became domesticated, in
contrast to dogs, pigs and sheep, he said.