The game of cat and mouse as we know it is a drama that unfolds inside of our kitchens, pantries and living rooms. Now, new research suggests the house mouse and its domesticated feline pursuer may have arrived in Europe thousands of years earlier than previously thought.
Archaeologists sifting through the ashen remnants of a burned-down, 6,500-year-old Neolithic village in Serbia have found the earliest known evidence of the perennial rodent pest, reports Mark Bridge for the Times.
In a statement, David Orton, a zooarchaeologist at the University of York and co-author of the new paper, notes that conventional wisdom suggests mice didn’t invade human habitats north of the Mediterranean during the Neolithic period.
“People have said that mice didn’t spread north of the Mediterranean in the Neolithic because the European settlements just weren’t big or dense enough to support them,” he adds, “but having worked on these big Serbian sites I knew that wasn’t universally true.”
Orton and his colleagues discovered new evidence of the house mouse’s European invasion as they attempted to trace the furry opportunist’s human-facilitated expansion back to its prehistoric origins, according to the statement.
To do this, the team examined 829 mouse specimens from 43 archaeological sites dated to between 40,000 and 3,000 years ago, reports Ruth Schuster for Haaretz. The earliest evidence of mice making themselves at home alongside human settlements came from 14,500-year-old bones found among the Natufians, a group of prehistoric hunter-gatherers that lived in Israel’s Jordan Valley, the researchers reported earlier this month in the journal Scientific Reports.
In 2017, examinations of ancient mouse teeth revealed the dawn of humans’ testy relationship with Mus musculus domesticus. As the Natufians became more sedentary, researchers started to see more house mouse molars in their encampments, reported Jason Bittel for National Geographic in 2017.
Contrary to prior thinking, the findings indicate that house mice started hanging around humans some 3,000 years prior to the advent of agriculture. Humans’ increasingly sedentary state, then, set the critters up for success, according to the Times. The authors of the new research argue that the prehistoric varmints were attracted to small stores of wild grains kept by the Natufians, as well as the added protection offered by human shelters.
Orton and his co-authors further hypothesize that cats likely showed up shortly thereafter, setting the stage for their emergence as humans’ allies and—eventually—standoffish pets.
The researchers admit that this claim requires further investigation but cite evidence of early cat domestication on the island of Cyprus as support for their argument. (Per the paper, the clinching discovery was a woman buried alongside a cat some 9,500 years ago.) The team theorizes that cats were probably brought to the island to control its mouse population, which arrived as stowaways on ships approximately 10,800 years ago.
The history of cats living alongside humans likely goes back even further, but as Casey Smith reported for National Geographic in 2017, that doesn’t mean they were cuddly. DNA analysis suggests cats lived near humans for thousands of years before being domesticated.
The first encounters between humans and cats probably found the felines hanging around in hopes of catching rodents, Claudio Ottoni, a paleogeneticist at Sapienza University of Rome, told National Geographic at the time.
“It’s not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages,” he said.
“Instead,” wrote Smith, “people more or less allowed cats to domesticate themselves.”
Today, cats have moved beyond their utilitarian roles as mouse-catchers; a recent survey of United States pet owners identified roughly 58 million felines traipsing around American homes.