The origins of the domestic cat

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In this article, we will give all the information on the origins of the domestic cat. The cat is as docile and accustomed to humans as any other pet, and yet it still retains a certain spirit of independence and even a hint of savagery. Cats are often loners and do well on their own. The cause may be due to their domestication later than most other domestic animals. The dog thus probably became the companion of man at the time when our ancestors abandoned the nomad to settle twelve thousand years ago. Goats, sheep, cattle, and pigs were also domesticated very early on; but there is no evidence of the domestication of the cat for four thousand years, traces of the existence of cats that have been found in older ruins surely come from wild species.

A little history on the domestic cat

Almost all of the evidence we have of the beginnings of cat domestication comes from ancient Egypt. The oldest evidence dates back to 2500 BC but is inconclusive. Painters and inspirations dating from 2000 BC show us the cat in conditions that suggest domestication. After this date, it is safe to say that the cat was a pet of the Egyptians.

They were also interested in animal life, they kept all kinds of animals in captivity. Most had their place in religious ceremonies. The cats themselves were dreamed of and protected, they were buried in cemeteries reserved for them. Thus was made the transition between the animal tolerated for the services rendered (elimination of rats and other vermins) and the companion animal. It is possible that the selection then played in favor of the animals which responded best to human advances, and whose reproduction was not hampered by their proximity.

This habit of having cats in the home slowly spread across the Middle East, from where it may have spread to India and China. We can also think that in these countries, domestication was already underway at the same time. Europe waited for the Romans to introduce the domestic cat. Much later, European explorers and traders exported it all over the world. The common custom of taking cats on board as a companion and predator of rangers has helped spread European cat breeds around the world.

The ancestors of the domestic cat

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Any pair of domestic cats can mate even if each member of the pair comes from opposite sides of the earth, demonstrating that they are of the same species. In the Middle East, for example, the domestic breed originated from the  African wildcat (Felis Libyca). At that time, this cat occupied Asia and North Africa. It is a flexible animal and acted very similar to the domestic tabby, although the shade is darker and has less obvious stripes. It has been suggested that the jungle cat (Felis chaus) was also an ancestor of the domestic cat, but the majority of the skulls found in Egyptian cat cemeteries have the appearance of Felis libyca, the rest being of the F.chaus type. 

And although the Egyptians owned jungle cats, they probably did not play a big role in the emergence of the modern domestic cat.

The tabby cat found in northern Europe has more marked stripes and darker coloring than the Felis Libyca, it resembles the European wildcat (F. silvestris) than the African species. But this does not imply that European domestic cats are descendants of F. silvestris rather than F. Libyca. When Libyca-type cats from Egypt spread across Europe thanks to the Romans, they were able to adapt to their new surroundings by gradually changing the color and pattern of their coat. They were also able to breed with native cats and the hybrids born from these crosses helped introduce the Silvestris tabby gene into the feline population.

The cat's domestication process

The genetic phenomenon which transforms the cat into a domestic animal is not fully understood; it is the same for any other animal since phenomena of this kind occurred long before scientific observation could be made. A mutation must have taken place because a domestic cat is born tame while, as far as wild species are concerned, domestication must be repeated in each generation.

Likewise, small cats found in the wild grow up fearful of humans. We do not know much genetically about the behavior of animals, but one of the hypotheses put forward is that the mutation which allowed the domestication of the cat slowed the development of adult behavior, the domestic cat would in fact never become an adult. This is because feral cats are generally solitary except during mating and mothering, while domestic cats returned to the wild are much more sociable. The most successful attempts at domestication concern species with a highly developed social sense, with a strong gregarious instinct, such as the dog. It seemed that such animals accepted humans as part of the gang, or in the case of cats as members of the litter. Maybe the cat never gets past this stage. The genetic modification could have been sudden and in this case the domestication of a particular breed. It seems more likely that a gradual change took place as a result of many minor genetic changes.

Morphological and behavioral changes have accompanied this process, the domestic cat (as well as other domesticated species) have a reduced brain compared to their wild counterparts. The result is less aggression, animals with smaller brains are more docile and are ready to breed near humans. Whatever the genetic mechanism involved, it is likely that the cat has domesticated itself by coming to share the life of humans, or in biological terms has found a new ecological niche.

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The origins of domestic breeds

This paragraph deals with the genetic and historical aspect of the breeds and colors of the domestic cat, but the fact that cats have only been selected for breeding for a hundred years does not allow any certainty as to their origin. However, it seems that the more powerful and stable breeds such as the European cat and the Persian were influenced by the European wildcat, while the eastern races: Abyssinian and Siamese, more account for the thinness of the African species. The selection made in breeding accentuated these characteristics. The long coat is possibly due to a mutant gene originating in Russia that is believed to have reached the feline populations of Turkey and Iran.

A study of the colors and patterns of the cat's coat reveals its permanence. Among the oldest colors are black, blue, red, and heather white. The colors of Siamese and Burmese are more recent.



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