The cats came, they conquered, and they purred


I don’t mean to be an Ewen Callaway clipping service (though there are worse things to be), but today he has a piece up on ancient feline DNA and what it might imply for the distribution and spread of cats, How cats conquered the world (and a few Viking ships). My dissertation project is no longer on felines, but I spent several years doing analysis and thinking deeply on the issue of how cats emerged, and what might account for their contemporary distribution and phylogeographic relationships.

There are a few things I can divulge without scooping any future researchers who might work the data I’ve seen. First, ships and cats seem to be very closely connected. That is, maritime trade routes turn out to be highly suggestive of many of the patterns you see. This goes to the distinction between cats and dogs: the former are definitely creatures whose coexistence with humanity is conditional on complex civilization. The “finer things” in life, as it were.

The “domestication” of the cat is probably hard to disentangle from the emergence of urban centers, and the vermin which they attracted. What humans term vermin, the cats would naturally consider prey. The selective pressures are easy to imagine. Cats and humans are now companions, but initially their interests were simply concurrent.

And just as cities emerged independently in several locales (as well as agriculture), it is not implausible that domestic felines emerged from different wild populations, though at this point I’m modestly skeptical of most claims. Though it is not unlikely that there is introgression or admixture from diverged wild lineages into many domestic cat populations, the evidence of independent domestications is weak in my judgment. In contrast, cattle seem to be derived from two very distinct groups.

Rather, these research point to deep ancient structure among Middle Eastern feline groups, and parallel possibilities of human-cat coexistence as farming communities emerged rapidly during the early Holocene, with exigencies of historical events leading to later phylogeographic patterns we see around. I think the above research is on the right path. There is definitely a connection between most European domestic cat lineages and the indigenous populations for Egyptian cat (for example).

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