Cats May Have Been Domesticated Twice

But only one ended up as the house cat

leopard cat
Roland Seitre/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Whether they were being worshipped as gods or transformed into memes, the relationship between cats and humans goes back a long ways. There are more than 500 million domestic house cats around the world, all of which are descended from a single subspecies of wildcat. But according to new research, there might have been a second, more recent (and unrelated) instance of cats becoming domesticated in China.

Most archaeologists believe that cats probably domesticated themselves more than 10,000 years ago when the fluffy little murderbeasts realized they could get an easy meal by staking out Neolithic storerooms and farms for the rats and mice that were attracted to human settlements. More cats meant fewer rodents, which meant more crops for the hard-working humans. Over time, our ancestors started taking care of the felines, leading to the modern house cat, Grennan Milliken writes for Popular Science.

But this story of a second line began a few years ago, when researchers uncovered several cat bones near Quanhucun, an early farming village in central China. The bones were about 5,300 years old and analysis of their chemistry showed these felines likely survived on a diet of grain-fed rodents, suggesting they at least hunted for dinner near the town’s millet stores.

The scientists found a few indications of domestication, according to the study recently published the journal PLOS One. First, based on the wear of its teeth, the remains of one of the cats seemed much older than the others, perhaps suggesting that someone took care of the cat as it got older, writes David Grimm for Science. These cats also were all slightly smaller than their wild counterparts, and one was even buried as a complete skeleton.

“That’s evidence of special treatment,” study author Jean-Denis Vigne tells Grimm. “Even if what we’re seeing here is not full domestication, it’s an intensification of the relationship between cats and humans.”

Further analysis showed that these cats did not descend from the same subspecies as the modern house cat, but actually belonged to a species known as “leopard cats,” Grimm reports. This means that the leopard cat lineage is genetically distinct from our modern fuzz balls.

Aside from a breed called the Bengal cat, which was created in the 1960s by intentionally breeding leopard cats with house cats, the two cat species have never commingled. Quanhucun cats may have been partly domesticated at some point, but then backslid and stayed feral upon the introduction of other domesticated kitties.

If true, that would make cats only the second known species to have been domesticated twice (the first being pigs), Milliken reports. According to zooarchaeologist Fiona Marshall, who helped uncover the bones but was not involved in the study, this could indicate that it might have taken less intentional effort for our ancestors to domesticate all kinds of animals than researchers once thought.

“This is very important work that should have a great impact,” Marshall tells Grimm. “This is the leading edge in a shift in thinking about domestication processes.”

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