Though it had long been assumed that cats were domesticated by the Egyptians, researchers have now discovered that the animals were first tamed into pets at least one thousand years earlier.
A new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, traces cat domestication to the Chinese villiage of Quanhucun some 5,300 years ago. Researchers believe that cats were drawn into close proximity with humans by the rodents that were attracted to the village by its agriculture.
"Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats," said Fiona Marshall, a co-author of the study and an archaeologist at Washington University. "Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits."
The study involved examining the bones from cats found during an excavation of Quanhucun. By dating and analyzing the bones, researchers were able to determine that one of the cats found was older, suggesting that it lived comfortably in the villiage. Another can was found to have eaten significant amounts of grain millet, suggesting that it may have been fed.
The study's authors still do not know whether the cats found at Quanhucun are descended from the Near Eastern Wildcat, the ancestor to modern domestic cats. This has implications for whether the cats were domesticated in China or were introduced to the area at some other point.
"We do not yet know whether these cats came to China from the Near East, whether they interbred with Chinese wild-cat species, or even whether cats from China played a previously unsuspected role in domestication," said Marshall.