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The spread of domestic cats into Europe.

Cats and humans started living together only recently. By 'recently', we mean at least seven thousand years ago. It is almost certain that all domestic cats come from a single subspecies of the wild cat known as Felis Silvestris Lybica, a type of cat found in the Near East. And how do we know that? Establishing the origin of domestic cats has become possible through a genetic technique which looks at mitochondrial DNA.

Unlike DNA obtained from the cell nucleus, DNA from mitochondria (a part of the cell which is responsible for energy production) is passed down only by the mother, which means the DNA is not altered. For example, by comparing the mitochondrial DNA of two individuals it is possible to see if they have the same origin or how far back their ancestors parted ways. (This technique has been used extensively to work out where different populations of humans came from.) Two researchers, Dr Johnson and Dr O’Brian used the mitochondrial DNA from different cats to determine their origin. Their original work was published in 1997 and has been subsequently used by many researchers looking to establish when different populations of cats arrived where they did and how they got there. (

However, studies of mitochondrial DNA have one caveat when looking at cat domestication - by the nature of mitochondrial DNA that of domestic cats and their wild counterparts is the same. Therefore, studying the genetic origin of domestic cats and establishing when these cats were domesticated are two different things.

Cat bones found in human habitations in ancient Egypt show that humans and cats have interacted for about nine thousand years. However, from these findings alone it is impossible to determine if the cats were domesticated at that time, eaten for dinner or feral cats attracted to human habitats by a source of food. Nevertheless, what is interesting is that Felis Catus appeared in the Middle East about the same time as humans in the area decided to give up nomadic hunting and settle down to an agricultural existence which happened to include mouse-infested grain bins.

It is likely that the first domestication happened in Egypt and these cats then migrated to other parts of the world through human intervention. For example, remains of a cat dated to 5000 BC have been found in Cyprus. Because cats were not native to the island it seems that they were brought there by ancient sailors (ships had mouse problems too). ((

According to earlier studies, domestic cats appeared in Central Europe during the Roman Period. It is well-documented that in ancient Greece and Rome cats were often kept as pets. Taking this chronology, It was believed that cats became established in Europe in the late 4th or early 5th century, around the same time as the fall of the Roman Empire. As the empire declined and its hold on the western Mediterranean weakened, many people began to flee to safer regions, taking their cats with them. Over time, these refugees helped to establish cat populations across Europe.

The studies of Krajcarz and his colleagues concluded in 2016 that there were no domesticated cats in Poland before the first century AD. This study, based on archaeozoological material, has been questioned by recent discoveries of cat remains in caves in southern Poland. These remains created a stir among cat-ethnographers because they dated from somewhere between 4200 and 2300 BC, the time of the Late Neolithic Era. (The Neolithic era is defined as a time when some groups of humans gave up the nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle completely to begin farming.) Mitochondrial DNA studies revealed that the remains were indeed Felis silvestris - cats from Egypt.

The researchers collected six sets of remains of Near Eastern cas from four cave sites around Krakow-Czestochowa. One set showed clear bite marks on the bones which would suggest that these bones were deposited by a larger predator or were scavenged on. However, the other five had no bite marks. To determine if those remains were of wild or more domesticated cats, the researchers turned their attention to the dietary habits of the feline deceased. One useful marker when looking at ancient bones is stable isotopes of carbon (C13) and nitrogen (N15). Both elements are taken in by animals through their diets and then deposited in their bones as components of bone collagen that can survive burial and fossilization. In the case of animals that rely on a high-protein diet, such as cats, the isotopic composition of bone collagen carbon and nitrogen primarily reflects those of the protein portion of the diet while some amount of carbon may also come from lipids and carbohydrates. With cats as with humans it seems, you are what you eat.

One thing which is well known about farming is that it can modify the amount of nitrogen in cultivated plants and grains due to the application of animal manure. So the thinking is that stored crops attracted rodents and those in turn attracted cats. Rodents fed with farmed cereals would have a higher content of N15 in their meat. The nitrogen then transferred to cats that fed on those rodents. The analysis of the cat remains from the caves showed indeed that the level of N15 was elevated in their bones when compared to wild cats, but still was lower than that of human remains and the remains of ancient dogs from this region. Knowing the hunting habits of cats it is likely that part of their food came from hunting birds or wild forest animals which would account for lower levels of N15 compared to the levels of the dogs that lived alongside them. Nethertheless, this study clearly showed the presence of Near Eastern cats in a human- modified environment in Poland and very much earlier than previously thought.

To conclude: Feline remains from Poland dated to 4200 - 2300 BC are currently the earliest evidence for the migration of the Near Eastern wildcat to Central Europe. Looking at the diet of at least some of those cats it suggests that they lived in close proximity to humans.

Magdalena Krajcarz, Maciej T. Krajcarz, Mateusz Baca, Hervé Bocherens. Ancestors of domestic cats in Neolithic Central Europe: Isotopic evidence of a synanthropic diet. PNAS (2020) vol 117 (30) pp 17710-17719.

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