History of cats

History of the cat: Early evolution

One of the most recently evolved species within the Felidae family, is the domestic cat or Felis catus.

There are 3 groups or genera in the Felidae family (in other words the entire cat family):

  • Panthera (cats that roar: lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars)
  • Acinonyx (the cheetah)
  • Felis (all other small cats)

Every member of the cat family from the noble lion, to the tiny black-footed cat, can trace its ancestry to a medium sized cat like animal, Pseudaelurus. This cat roamed central Asia 11 million years ago. They have many common anatomical features, such as the rounded head and skeletal structure, still in evidence today. Pseudaelurus eventually became extinct, but not before unusually low sea levels had allowed it to migrate to all parts of the world except those places cut off, namely Australia, the Arctic and Antarctic. The rise and fall of sea levels over many millennia, helped create through migration and isolation, a number of distinct species. By 3 million years ago there was a wide variety of cats populating most of the world. This included the African Wild Cat (Felis sylvestris lybica).

All cats have evolved as predatory hunting animals with keen senses of hearing sight and smell. The cat family is one of the most highly developed carnivorous hunters of all mammalian species. With the exceptions of lions, which live in groups, all other cats have developed as solitary animals with the ability to fend for themselves. The widespread migration of ancestral cats was probably made easier by their natural instinct to disperse and find their own territory, along with the need to follow the species they preyed upon. Their variety of coat colours enabled them to be camouflaged in many different locations.

Adaptation and “domestication” of Felis catus

The co-existence of cats and humans is evident from fossil records from early human settlements. However, these have been assumed to be wild cats. The development of true domestication, or perhaps more accurately “taming” of cats is now thought to have happened as long ago as 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. Some 9500 years ago, a cat was found buried with its human owner in a grave in Cyprus. It is assumed that domestication started earlier than this as there were no native cats on the island. Skulls of cats found in Egypt around 3600 years ago, in cat burial grounds, belonged to the African Wild Cat. It is this cat living in Asia and North Africa which is thought to be the main ancestor of today’s domestic cat.

Felis catus as a species has arisen through wildcats living closely with humans. The first evidence of human stores of grain come from Israel about 10,000 years ago. With the storage of grain, came the increase in the population of mice. This in turn is thought to have attracted the wild cats into the human settlements.

The two theories of domestication

  • The original wildcats (Felis sylvestris lybica) were deliberately tamed and selected for friendliness. This was in order to help keep the rodent population down.
  • Rather than being specifically selected, tamer individuals were more tolerated by humans. Therefore, they gradually diverged from their ‘wild’ relatives through natural selection, adapting to hunt the mice and vermin that lived around the human settlement.

The second is considered most likely. In either scenario, several feline traits such as small size, social nature, high intelligence, love of play and maybe an inborn tendency towards tameness, may have facilitated their domestication and their interaction with human beings.

As the years passed, two distinct sub-species eventually evolved. More ‘tame’ genes were passed onto the domestic cat's offspring. These cats gave rise to the cats we know today. Those individuals that did not warm to humans in the same way, stayed wild and gave birth to more ‘wild’ kittens.  The domestic cat was first classified as Felis catus in 1758 by Carolus Linnaeus. Although behaviourally very different, genetic analysis has demonstrated that the DNA of modern day domestic cats throughout the world is almost identical to that of Felis sylvestris lybica which still survives today. They have a similar appearance to our tabby cat.

Most cats are not strictly domesticated, despite the passage of many millennia. Undoubtedly, one of the major attractions of cat ownership today is that while being tame, cats remain little altered from their wild ancestors exhibiting many of their traits and characteristics.

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