Tonight’s musical selection is “Permanent Revolution” by World Order. Thanks to M. Christian for the suggestion.

Cat in China

Did cats first befriend humans in ancient China?

How were cats first domesticated? An archaeological site in China has found evidence of domesticated cats from 5,000 years ago.

The archaeologists discovered eight cat bones (from two or more different cats) in three refuse pits, which also housed various other animal bones, pottery and tools. Radiocarbon dating showed that the cat specimens were about 5,300-years old, and that they lived in the area for at least 200 years. Interestingly, scientists previously believed that cats first appeared in China only 2,000 years ago.

The team analyzed the carbon and nitrogen isotopes present in the animal and human remains to determine what they ate. The results suggested that the wild herbivores, such as deer and hare, fed on some kind of wild vegetation in the area. The humans, dogs and pigs all had diets rich in millet-based foods; the researchers believe the diets of the dogs and pigs were based on human food remains (from leftovers or garbage) and feces. The rodents also had isotope values indicative of millet products. The cats, on the other hand, appeared to have been preying on animals with a high millet diet, which were most likely those grain-eating rodents.

The isotope values of one of cat specimens stood out from the rest. Unlike the other cats, this animal ate far less meat than would be expected if it were actively hunting rodents. The cat may have been unable to hunt for whatever reason and instead lived by scavenging from human food remains, or villagers may have taken care of it. ‘It certainly wasn’t living in a way that a wild cat would normally live,’ Marshall said. Additionally, another cat specimen had very worn teeth, showing that it survived into old age. ‘That suggests that cats were doing very well in that environment, whether they were wild or domestic or like feral alley cats today.’

The study suggests that the cats were able to carve out a niche in the Chinese farming village. As previous theories had suggested, the cats were drawn to the village because of the abundance of rodents, which were living off of the farmers’ food. Here, they had access to year-round food and were possibly cared for by humans after they could no longer hunt — this allowed them to thrive in the new habitat. Humans equally benefited from having a new kind of pest control. Over time, the relationship between cats and humans strengthened, leading to true domestication.

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Photo by Jill Shih released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.