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Over 25% of the households on the planet own a cat. But how did the widespread domestication of felines come to be? Most people give ancient Egypt credit for the domestication of cats—but that's not entirely true! Join Hank Green for a fun kitty-centered episode of SciShow!
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Egyptian Tomb Carvings:
Fertile Crescent:
African Wild Cat:
Wild Cat 2:
Leopard Cat:
Leopard Cat Night:
[SciShow intro plays]

Hank: Cats. We know they like to chase lasers and lick their own butts. But there is a lot we don’t know about cute little Whiskers, like where her cuddly, domestic ancestors came from, and when she evolved from wild animals.

We used to think that the earliest historical evidence for domestic cats was from ancient Egypt, like art and mummified remains from around 4000 years ago. But now some clues are pointing to domestic kitties older than that, from separate places across the globe. The oldest probably-domestic cat skeleton we’ve found was in 2001, on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean sea. Scientists guessed that this cat lived around 9500 years ago, which makes sense historically.

That’s after people had started farming in the Fertile Crescent, that not-totally-desert region in parts of western Asia and northern Africa. Farming means you have to store extra crops somewhere, and piles of tasty grain attract rodents. And for hungry cats, that’s an all-you-can-eat buffet.

So one hypothesis is that feral cats might’ve started snagging some meals, and getting cozy with humans. Humans were happy to have them, too, because they took care of the pests, and were fluffy and cute. By this time, we think humans had domesticated other animals like dogs, cattle, and sheep, so adding another furry friend wouldn’t seem all that unusual.

And we think this cat from Cyprus was a pet for a couple of reasons. First of all, Cyprus is an island with no native cats, so someone must have brought them over on a boat. And, if they weren’t a little tame, that would have been a scratchy, panicky animal mess. Like, you might know how hard it can be to get an uncontrollable kitty just to the vet and back.

Plus, the cat was buried with a person, presumably its owner, and surrounded with carved seashells. Wild animals wouldn’t get this special treatment, and if the cat was a meal, its bones would’ve been separate and probably scattered. All of this evidence lines up with a study published in the journal Science in 2007, which looked at the genetic origins of domestic cats.

Those researchers found that our feline friends are are most closely related to the wildcat Felis silvestris, specifically, the Near Eastern subspecies. Your eyes, also, if you look at this cat, will back this evidence up because they look a lot like domestic cats. So, lots of signs point to domestic cats splitting off from their wildcat cousins in the Fertile Crescent.

But hold on. Some other scientists discovered probably-domestic cat bones in 2001, in an ancient millet farming village in central China. A close computer analysis of the jaw bone shapes showed that these cats weren’t related to the wildcat at all.

Instead, they were a kind of leopard cat – which is in an entirely different genus. From small animal tunnels throughout the excavation site, and ceramic containers that looked like they stored grain, the researchers were pretty sure that this village had a rodent problem. And by looking at the carbon isotopes in cats’ bones, it was clear that they ate lots of small animals that ate lots of human-grown millet.

This was the first convincing evidence to support the “domestic cats eat pests that eat grain” hypothesis. But this domestication happened in different kinds of cats, around 5300 years ago, on the other side of this huge landmass. So, what’s the real story? The Middle Eastern or the Chinese domestication of cats?

Well, there’s no reason that domestication couldn’t have happened twice in two separate places with two separate cat species when people started farming grain. But, remember? Genetically, all our modern cats seem to be descended from the wildcat, not the leopard cat. Maybe the domestic wildcats were just snugglier and had a leg up to win our favor. See, domestication leaves its fingerprints in an animal’s genome. So even though any cat person will joke that their cats are are too independent to really be considered domesticated, we can look at these genetic fingerprints.

A 2014 collaboration between a bunch of American universities took a close look at the domestic cat genome, using 22 different breeds from different places. The study found recent changes in genes that control the development of the cat’s nervous system. These genes could play a role in how domestic cats, for example, behave less defensively in new situations, and can change their behavior in response to rewards.

In other words, compared to a wildcat, Fluffy is genetically more likely to walk up to you with a friendly headbutt and beg for treats. This could explain why our cats are extra snuggly: the ones that got along best with humans could take advantage of our rodent pests and table scraps, and survived to pass on their genes. So, in a way, cats did domesticate themselves. And it seems like they did it more than one time. Which kind of means, that the rise of cat videos was practically inevitable.

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