Cat Origins

Through the filter of time ... a repost that may still be interesting to you from two years ago.

The NYT is running a piece discussing the domestication of the cat.

I love watching wild cats. It is fairly easy to see them in the Kalahari, where the population of cats is almost certainly untouched by genetics of any domesticated form. Despite the kitty-osity shown in the photograph provided with the NYT article, the actual wild cats show themselves to be very different than the domesticated ones. They don't look the same, they don't act the same, they don't have the same overall pattern of affect we see in domestic cats.

You look at them, they look at you, and you think "holy crap, if that cat was the size of a large dog, I'd be dead right now..."

Anyway, Nicholas Wade's piece in the NYT discusses the usual theories ... that cats domesticated themselves (parallel to the dog story) and that the likely ancestral population contributing to the modern domestic cat is from the Middle East.

I doubt this is true. I and some colleagues kept a couple of generations of female domestics (a mongrel of African breeds) in the Ituri Forest, and they had litter after litter after litter ... obviously not virgin births (there were no halos, no angels announcing anything of import ... so we figure there was a good local wild cat population. I saw them (it?) a couple of times ... just eyes in the night. DId the resarchers looking at the cat genome test these cats? Very unlikely. The "African Cat" genome in this sample is almost certainly a Kalahari cat.

So you see, the "African Sample" would be from the opposite side of a Freekin' Huge-Ass Continent, ignoring everything else in between. Indeed, the Central African Rain Forest is said to not contain wild cats. But there are indeed many things in that forest that are said to not be there....

What I'm saying is that the range of domestication of the cat may well have included the middle east, but more likely it was primarily in Africa, with only a little piece maybe, but probably not, extending over past the Jordon River.

But since Africa is full of black people and the Middle East is the home of Western Civilization, what with God living there and all, a drop of Middle East in a Soup of Africa will be called Middle Eastern Stew every time.

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You look at them, they look at you, and you think "holy crap, if that cat was the size of a large dog, I'd be dead right now..."

Which reminded me of:…

... and the little girl wondering why the big kitty didn't play nice.

As for your collection of felis domesticus and their amazing fecundity, though -- cats hybridize amazingly. Even chromosome-count mismatches don't stop them from producing viable young. Across Africa is nothing when you consider the hybrids I've known between European housecats and North American wildcats.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 18 Jun 2009 #permalink

Forgive me for being dense. But I'm confused by this post.

Are you saying that domestication of cats did not originate somewhere in the Levant? That they more than likely originated in Central Africa? And you say this not just because you're certain you saw wild cats when you were there, but also that researchers couldn't be bothered to check there?

So your gut feeling and anecdote are more valid than the evidence? That's AWESOME science.

By Brian Jacobs (not verified) on 19 Jun 2009 #permalink


I was sort of trying to get at that with my questions. I'm confused because I've learned much from this blog about not relying on feelings or rhetoric or anecdotes.

But, again, if I'm reading this post correctly, I'm seeing Greg Laden tell us that he doubts the findings expressed in American Scientific and NYTimes because he saw "eyes in the night" in Africa. Weird.

Not only that, but there seems to be a bit of ethnocentrism or outright racism involved?

To be clear... By the researchers, not Greg.

My point may be obscure so I'll restate it here. Middle Easternists who study domestication of plants or animals always, consistently, make the following two mistakes: They forget that "Egypt" is part, historically, culture-historically, ethnically, and biogeographically, of two or three fast biomes/culture areas that are primarily (i.e., 90 percent) situated in Africa, with little nibbies sticking up into territory that can be claimed as Asia and maybe a tiny bit of Europe. The second mistake is to assume that if they see something "happen" in the record that they have collected, which may entirely ignore Africa (and in the case of the cats, there is like one sample other than ME that is from Africa, and dozens from Asia and Europe) and assume that it happened in the middle east.

I'm not offering an alternative conclusion to any prior conclusions. I am saying that the particular conclusions of this recent research are no more valid than any other conclusion based on abysmally crappy sampling, and that the fact that the sampling can be so bad and no on caring of this is the anti-African bias that we see in almost all of the historical sciences.

There seems to be a lot of mud slinging by people who dont appear to have read the paper by Driscoll et al that the ME origin is confirmed in. They used a huge sample set of domestic and wild cats (~700 if memory serves). and an exhaustive comparison of mitochondrial, neutral nuclear and sex linked genes show conclusively that the domestic cat is a descendant of the middle eastern wild cat. This subspecies ranges from north Africa to Iran so no one is excluding Africa from the story. A subsaharan, far eastern and european origin of the domestic cat can be excluded with a high degree of significance. All the archaeological evidence for cat domestication (the early stuff) is from the middle east (and Cyprus). No one is playing down the obvious role that Egypt had in developing the domestic cat but 5000 years before that it had been a companion animal in the middle east.

So, nobody's leaving Africa out...except by not sampling the cats in the area where the competing theory says cats may have been domesticated. Except by pointing to a subspecies of wild cat that's present in both areas as evidence that cats were domesticated in the Middle East.

Okay, I'm starting to get Greg's point here.

Its not just genetics but archaeology that informs this conclusion. There is no evidence of pre-dynastic domestic cats in Egypt despite known sites with a neolithic and earlier age. There is simply no evidence for an Egyptian domestication of cats. The reasoning behind a ME origin of domestic cats is simple- early cats in association with humans in the middle east, no early cats in association with humans in egypt, therefore evidence points to origin in the ME, and genetics backs this up. If a site earlier than 9000BP came to light in Egypt or anywhere in North Africa that showed a human and cat relationship then the opinion would change. You cant just call "conspiracy" on ideas that you like but have no actual support.

The entire continent of Africa, which is the only continent with a contiguous distribution of the wild version of this species, lacks the archaeological evidence necessary to assess this question. Absence of evidence in this case is not evidence of absence.

You could make the same archaeological argument for dogs and conclude a middle eastern origin, but in that case, the genetic evidence is very strong against a ME origin for dogs.

The cat may well have been domesticated (to the extent that they are domesticated) in the ME. I'm not arguing that this is not possible. But the evidence is not conclusive at all.

Ross, given what you said about the presence of the subspecies of wildcat in northern Africa and what the SciAm article says about sites tested, I don't see how the genetic evidence can be said to reflect in any way on the hypothesis that cats became domesticated in northern Africa.

The fact that anyone is using this genetic sampling as evidence that cats were not domesticated in northern Africa strikes me as a bit bizzare. Not in southern Africa, sure, but that wasn't the competing hypothesis.

You are right, the genetic evidence on its own does not exclude north Africa as a domestication site. It is the archaeology of north Africa and the ME that exclude one area and implicate another.

Drop the "on its own," Ross. It has nothing to say on the subject. It isn't evidence and shouldn't have been mentioned in the article. You don't reach a conclusion by stacking inconclusive data.

I have a vested interest and I hope it is not coming through as an undertone. I spend a certain amount of effort over the course of time pointing out and addressing anti-African biases in archaeology, history. We all Africanists do this. But there are a few hundred of us, as opposed to middle easternists, of which there are thousands, and Euopeanists and Asianists, of which there are zillions.

Vested in the search for truth interest!

Hmm. I may be overstating my case a little bit in saying the study shouldn't have been included. I'm a little overwhelmed at the blatancy of the bias and perhaps not being as accurate as I should be. I should rather say that the study should never have been characterized in the article as support for the article's thesis.

Sorry Greg, I meant from ross. I'm practicing my "pithy remark" posting mode, as verbose doesn't always go over well. Because there is definitely not an altruistic desire for unequivocal science here, you see. (Go Stephanie!)

Ahem ... My Wussy Puss tells me that humans obviously evolved from monkeys, but that cats are clearly the product of intelligent design ...

By William Gulvin (not verified) on 20 Jun 2009 #permalink

Humanity makes middens; humanity makes middens; humanity trades. I suspect wherever cats first accepted humans as companions, they could have spread quickly. Unless they had religious or economic significance, they wouldn't necessarily be recorded as part of the cultural record. And so it is possible.

By Samantha Vimes (not verified) on 21 Jun 2009 #permalink