Friday, July 17, 2009

More on cats

A friend just stopped by and told me about one of her projects while she's here in Jerusalem - she's photographing one cat a day and sending the picture to her daughter back home in the U.S. I told her about my interest in cat ancestry and the link between domestic cats and wildcats from the Middle East, which made me go back and look again at the New York Times article from 2007 that first piqued my interest in this question. The Times website provides a link to the article in Science from which the information was taken. Amidst the technique discussion of genetics, which I was not able to follow very well, there were some little poetic gems that expressed the conclusions of the article in more understandable language.
The domestic cat may be the world's most numerous pet, yet little is certain of the cat's origin. Archaeological remains and anthropological clues suggest that, unlike species domesticated for agriculture (e.g., cow, pig, and sheep) or transport (horse and donkey), the cat probably began its association with humans as a commensal, feeding on the rodent pests that infested the grain stores of the first farmers. The earliest evidence of cat-human association involves their co-occurrence in Cyprus deposits determined to be 9500 years old. Domestic cats are generally considered to have descended from the Old World wildcats, but they differ from these hypothesized progenitors in behavior, tameness, and coat color diversity....

These 15 individuals [Middle Eastern wildcats] had concordant mtDNA and STR phylogenies identical to those of domestic cats and were collected in remote deserts of Israel, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia. These data suggest that these Near Eastern wildcats may represent the ancestral founder population of domestic cats, supporting a domestication origin in the Near East....

The domestication of wild species to complement human civilization stands as one of the more successful "biological experiments" ever undertaken. For cats, the process began more than 9000 years ago when the earliest farmers of the Fertile Crescent domesticated grains and cereals as well as livestock. In parallel, the endemic wildcats of the region may have adapted by both regulating the rodents in the grain stores and abandoning their aggressive wild-born behaviors. The archaeological imprints left in the genomes of living cats here weigh into inferences about the timing, steps, and provenance of domestication—a dynamic exercise depicted in art, in history, and in human cultural development since recorded evidence began.
Much more pleasant to contemplate than humans rioting!

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