Sorry, Cats, You’re Still Historical Afterthoughts

New evidence shows cats nuzzled up to us earlier than thought—but canines have been dogging us for much, much longer

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The question of which came first, the dog or the cat, has long been settled: Canines are the clear winner by what looks increasingly to be tens of thousands of years. But new evidence out of China has placed the date for the origins of the cat there some 3,500 years earlier than previously thought.

Dogs, it is now generally agreed, arose in the camps of hunting and gathering peoples perhaps 30,000 or more years ago. From the start, they appear to have filled a variety of roles as hunters, watchdogs, and guardians. No matter how we slice it, dogs also make excellent companions on the trail.

With all due respect to cat lovers—of whom, worldwide, there are as many as dog fanciers—long distance travel is not felines’ strong suit. At the same time, they are intensely territorial, and males especially wander within those more circumscribed realms.

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Indeed, it could be argued that the cat has been sought out over time because it is the not dog. Like the dog, it is a predator in our midst—but after that, the similarities end.

The differences date to the species’ beginnings. From genetic work, as far as we know, the Middle Eastern wild cat, Felis silvestris lybica, is the only maternal progenitor to the modern cat. This subspecies first appears in the burial of a high ranking individual around 9,500 on the island of Cyprus. Cat remains dating to 9,000 years ago appear in Jericho and about 4,000 years ago in Egypt. Despite ancient Egyptian prohibitions against trading cats, they seem to have been swapped throughout the Middle East and Europe.

That leaves a large gap in the fossil record that has now been filled unexpectedly by a team of American and Chinese researchers working in the Central Chinese village of Quonhucun. Previously, cat remains in China had been dated to 2,000 years ago. Now the researchers have unearthed evidence of cats some 5,560 to 5,280 years ago. Working with fossils, they carried out carbon dating and stable isotope analysis which allows researchers to see what animals were eating. The Qunhucun cats’ provenance is unknown, but they were clearly living in concert (in what the researchers term a “commensal relationship”) with people.

A commensal relationship is defined as one that is clearly beneficial to all parties. In this case, cats benefited by having a steady, year-round food supply, while humans benefited by having a rodent killer on hand.

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The people in the village had designed storage containers to keep rodents, particularly the indigenous zokor at bay, but they apparently were reliant on cats as well. One of the cats that was excavated lived on a diet much higher in grain than the researchers had expected, said Fiona Marshall, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis and a participant in the study.

Dr. Marshall said, “The big mystery is how the cats got to Central China at that time. One possibility is that they came across what became many years later the Silk Road through trade. We know that people would gather and then disperse across long distances.”

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Another possibility, she added, is that one or more subspecies of Asian wildcats were domesticated independently, only to later have their genetic material swamped by cats from Africa and the Middle East.

Whatever additional studies find, this work strongly suggests that the cat served to support the emergence of agriculture. In a time when people were growing food and storing it away for future use, they needed ways to protect that grain from rodents—and cats proved effective at doing that. So while early dogs catted about with roaming people, early cats dogged the heels of pestiferous rodents.

Mark Derr is the author of A Dog’s History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent.