Recently the first large-scale study of feline DNA was undertaken and the results are in. They show how cats likely spread globally until they now live in 37% of American households and outnumber dogs as pets. The study sequenced the DNA of more than 200 cats that lived between 15,000 years ago and the 18th century. The study showed that cats likely expanded across the globe in two waves -- and washed ashore in our heats.
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Little is known about the domestication of the house cat (Felis silvestris) and there is even debate among researchers as to whether or not the cat is actually a domesticated version of their wild cousins. Its behaviors and anatomy differs significantly from its larger relations.
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Researchers analyzed the mitochondrial DNA from the remains of cats from more that 30 archaeological dig sites across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. From this they were able to glean some information about the spread of felines in two waves. The first is the one that most people are familiar with as cats were spread among farming communities to help control pest populations such as mice and rate that threatened food crops. Wild cats were undoubtedly drawn to human settlements with the promise of a food source and humans likely cultivated the relationship for the benefits they gained from it.
The second wave was likely literally on the waves as cats traveled with mariners like the Vikings to keep down rodents on sailing vessels, again to preserve food stores. Those cats apparently also got shore leave and made the most of it. The men on board the ships may have also traded the occasional cat with a farmer or merchant.
DNA found in Egyptian cats between the 4th century BC and the 4th century AD was also found in a Viking cat at a German settlement from between the 8th and 11th centuries AD. Few people even think of the idea of Vikings having cats. It seems way too domestic for a raging group of looters and pillagers.
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In case you were wondering, cats were a large part of Norse life and that is reflected in their mythology. For example Freja, the goddess of love, traveled in a chariot pulled by two cats. If my own Viking DNA is any judge, then the Vikings adored cats.
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One of the reasons that the research on cats is so rare is that funding for it lags far behind that for research on dogs. This may stem in part from the fact that dogs have been domesticated far longer than cats and there is more evidence behind their domestication, at least anecdotally.
With a cat we are still cuddling a tiger in evolutionary terms.