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Cats May Have been Domesticated in China Far Earlier Than Expected

First Posted: Jan 25, 2016 01:12 PM EST

How long have pet cats been around? That's a good question and now, researchers may have an answer. It turns out that small cats may have been domesticated in China earlier than 3000 BC, which is comparable to what took place in the Near East and Egypt.

In 2001, researchers discovered cat bones in agricultural settlements in northern China dating from around 3500 BC. However, researchers weren't sure whether this was evidence of a relationship between small Chinese cats and humans, or the result of the first domestic cats arriving in China from the Near East.

In order to find out, the researchers conducted a geometric morphometric analysis, which is the only way to differentiate the bones of such small cats, which have very similar morphologies. The scientists analyzed the mandibles of five cats from Shaanxi and Henan dating from 3500 to 2900 BC.

So what did they find? It turns out that the bones clearly belonged to the leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis. This species is still very widespread in Eastern Asia today. The wildcat is actually a distant relation of the western wildcat, and is well-known for its propensity to frequent areas with a strong human presence. It's likely that leopard cats were attracted into Chinese settlements by the proliferation of rodents.

So what does this mean? It shows that these leopard cats were present and may have started being domesticated. However, these were replaced by its relation, F. silvestris lybica over time as it arrived from other areas.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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