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Researchers reported today that all domestic cats — including the plump fur ball snoozing on your sofa — are descended from a wild, tabby-like sub-species that lived in North Africa 130,000 years ago. The findings were published in Science magazine.
Domestication started 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Grain farmers noticed cats' proclivity for catching rats and mice, and began using them to keep rodents from eating their crops. The earliest archaeological evidence that cats fraternized with humans dates to 9,500 years ago in Cyprus, and the Egyptians' love and veneration of Felis silvestris is well known because of their artwork and mummies.
"House cats — which includes fancy breeds and feral cats — those cats all form a genetic group that is virtually indistinguishable from ones in the Middle East," co-author Stephen O'Brien of the National Cancer Institute told the Associated Press. He said cats may have been domesticated once or many times. The most likely scenario is that they were domesticated once and then bred with other wild cats.
Why is the Cancer Institute studying cats? As AP writes, because cats are a model for some human genetic diseases, such as polycystic kidney disease and retinal atrophy. The research also should help efforts to protect wild cats.
(Today's domestic cats are related to this wild cat, Felis silvestris lybica, which was trapped in Israel as part of the research by Science magazine.)