Domesticated cats used to pertain to 2 distinct species, researchers have recently determined, therefore contradicting the long-held belief that solely the wildcat was tamed by humans.
The ground-breaking findings, featured in the journal PLOS One on January 22, were based on a comprehensive analysis carried out by French experts at the National Center for Scientific Research, affiliated with the Ministry of Education and Research.
The popular theory had been that wildcats (scientifically known as Felis silvestris lybica) were the only ones to ever become domesticated.
This was estimated to have occurred around 10,000 years ago, throughout the Middle East and North Africa, possibly in order to keep rodents at bay at a time when agriculture was just starting to emerge.
However, now experts have discovered that domestic cats also involved a completely different species, called the leopard cat (known in the scientific community as Prionailurus bengalensis).
Research was conducted by Jean-Denis Vigne and his colleagues, who sought to reveal the origins of several feline bones which had been brought to light at Quanhucun, an ancient farming site found in central China.
The fossils, believed to be approximately 5,300 years old, had belonged to cats which appeared to have fed on smaller creatures; this quarry was determined to have probably been represented by rodents, since traces of grains were found in animals’ guts.
Up until recently, some had believed that the felines had been Middle Eastern wildcats which had already been tamed, and had reached the Chinese village via extensive trade routes.
An alternate theory had been that the mandible, pelvis and other bones that had been unearthed had belonged either to leopard cats or to Asiatic steppe wildcats (Felis silvestris ornata).
This would’ve meant that the Asian farmers had actually domesticated the felines themselves, in order to assist them in guarding their crops from mice and other pests.
The mystery was finally unraveled recently, when French experts used geometric morphometrics in order to examine the Quanhucun fossils more carefully, alongside other bones that had been retrieved from 2 other ancient Chinese settlements.
The process involved assessing the contours and dimensions of the mandibles especially, in order to discover what animal they had originally belonged to.
The conclusion was that the fossils pertained to leopard cats, and not to wildcats, and that the animals had indeed been tamed, as proven by the fact that they were tinier than their feral counterparts, and their teeth showed signs of wear and tear that don’t normally appear in the wild.
Another piece of evidence pointing to the leopard cats’ domesticated nature was the discovery of a full feline skeleton, which suggests that the animal was buried this way, being treated much more respectfully, without being slaughtered and eaten.
Based on these findings, study authors are now firmly convinced that in ancient times two species of felines were actually domesticated, for the same reasons of aiding farmers and saving harvested produce.
The difference was that tamed wildcats proved a much more resilient species, from which all the half a billion domestic cats that exist nowadays eventually descended. In contrast, domesticated leopard cats didn’t survive as centuries went by, the species reverting to its feral nature despite efforts to subdue it.
Even in China, none of the domesticated tabbies found today trace their origins back to leopard cats, wildcats remaining the sole ancestors for modern-day house cats.
It must be noted that while investigating feline leukemia Dr William Centerwall and Jean Sudgen Mill did manage to extensively breed domestic cats (Felis catus) with leopard cats starting from the late 1960’s, thus producing Bengal cats, which are generally tame, but still retain some of the characteristics of their wild ancestors.
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