What is the Anatolian Cat? To answer this question we have to delve deeper into the ancient history and the genetics of cats.
The first part of Anatolian Cat (Anadolu Kedisi) series will reveal the complex, yet fascinating history of cats.
Which wildcats were the ancestors of Anatolian cats and other domestic cats? Were cats really “domesticated” in Egypt?
When, where and how cats began their unique relationship with humans?
Domestic cat and its relatives
To Understand the domestic cat origins better, we must know how it relates to other cat species (taxonomy).
All 39 living cat species share a last common ancestor known as Pseudaelurus. This now extinct cat species lived about 10-15 million years ago (1).
Cat species can further be categorized into 8 separate lineages called genus (Figure 1). A genus of domestic cat is called Felis. This feline family Felis first appeared 3.36 million years ago (2). Small wildcat species such as sand cat, jungle cat, black-footed cat, including domestic cat relatives, European and African–Asian wildcats, are a part of the same Felis genus.
The domestic cat belongs to the small wildcat species called Felis lybica. These wildcats historically inhabited areas in the Near East, Africa, and Asia. Three subspecies of Felis lybica have been recognized so far: the Asiatic wildcat (Felis lybica ornata), South African wildcat (Felis lybica cafra) and the Near Eastern wildcat (Felis lybica lybica) (3). The domestic cat is descended from the Near Eastern wildcat, therefore, the domestic cat’s taxonomic name should be Felis lybica lybica (4, 5).
However, taxonomists choose to ignore the genetic and archaeological data that supports the classification of domestic cats as Felis lybica lybica species, and instead, they call it as a separate species “Felis catus” (6).
The other name used to describe the domestic cat in older publications, Felis domesticus, is not a valid taxonomic name (7).
Why do we use the term “taming” instead of “domestication”
Throughout this article, we describe cats that lived nearby humans in ancient times as “tamed”. Although numerous publications use the term “domestication” for cats indiscriminately even when evidence is scarce, we want to avoid oversimplification and unfounded claims.
The central point of this article is the very beginning of cat and human relationship in the Neolithic period – we rarely go beyond that. Whether humans successfully domesticated cats or not, is a relatively irrelevant detail for such an early historical period.
There is a little doubt that cats at that time still would be considered as wildcats. Since we have no evidence that wildcats were under direct human selection, not to mention isolated from their wild population, taming seems to be a more appropriate term here than domestication.
Additionally, a single agreed definition for domestication doesn’t exist (8, 9). Scientists still debate whether the domestic cat should be regarded as a domesticated animal or not (10,11,12).
Where cats were first tamed?
For a long time, it was believed that domestic cat originated 4000 years ago in Egypt, and from there spread to other parts of the world (13). It is not difficult to understand why this belief persisted. Cats were a part of the well-documented religious cult. Ancient Egyptians left many artifacts with domestic cats, including a large number of cat mummies. Considering that cats had a religious and cultural significance in ancient Egypt, it was assumed that Egyptians were first to “domesticate” cats, or were they?
The latest archaeological and genetic research is already rewriting the history of the domestic cat. Findings suggest that the importance of Egypt in cat “domestication” has been greatly overstated.
No sufficient evidence for cat “domestication” in Egypt or China
Despite its popularity, the speculation that ancient Egyptians “domesticated” cats is based on weak evidence.
One study found that modern populations of Egyptian cats were surprisingly similar to cats that were mummified 2000-3000 ago. Researchers concluded that domestic cats arrived in Egypt after it had already been tamed elsewhere (14). Although commonly accepted that the close relationship between cats and humans dates back as far as 4000 years, the cat burial from ancient Egyptian town Hierakonpolis predates this relationship by nearly 2000 years (15).
According to another study, cats from unidentified species were discovered in a 5,300-year-old village of Quanhucun, China. These cats hunted rodents that ate stored grains (16). Some sources wrongly interpreted this study as evidence for cat domestication in China (17), while the study only described the commensal relationship between humans and wild cats that precedes domestication (18). Commensalism is a relationship between two species of organisms sharing the same environment, when one organism benefits from the relationship without harming the other. Quanhucun cats clearly were not domesticated but the conditions (the abundance of rodents in a village, living in close proximity to humans) could initiate the taming of those cats (19). The study may not be relevant anymore because cats that lived in an ancient Chinese village were not domestic cat’s ancestors, Near Eastern wildcats (Felis lybica) but leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis) (20).
Why did cats choose to live close to humans?
The earliest villages and farming communities first appeared in Anatolia (21). As early as 10,000 years ago, Neolithic farmers attempted to domesticate many different animals and plants (22). The most important domesticated crop in ancient times was einkorn wheat which originated from Southern Anatolia, Karaca Dağ Mountain (23, 43), close to the location of Göbekli Tepe. 12,000-year-old archaeological site Göbekli Tepe is the earliest evidence of the first organized human societies which practiced agriculture (24). First villages appeared in Anatolia weren’t inhabited by humans only. House mice (Mus musculus) and opportunistic predators like wildcats visited these early village settlements (25). Throughout most of the history, cats have had a commensal relationship with humans: cats hunted rodents and fed on waste while humans tolerated their presence (10, 21). However, it appears that cats were not only tolerated but sometimes valued for their companionship. The oldest known discovery that provides evidence of a close relationship between a human and a cat, is ~9,500 years old cat and human burial from Cyprus (26). No cats were present in Cyprus until early farmers from Anatolia brought them to the island by boat (27). These wildcats had been tamed in the mainland before, where the relationship between cats and humans in Anatolia dates back at least 10,000 years.
Neolithic villagers possibly did not try to domesticate the wildcats roaming their settlements. However, the vulnerability of the wildcat kittens could be a starting point of the cat-human relationship. Imagine, a human or perhaps a child, accidentally finding a meowing kitten left by its mother somewhere in a village. The cuteness and helplessness of the kitten could trigger the nurturing feelings in humans, creating the conditions where wildcats had an opportunity to interact with humans early on (28, 29). In this case, the taming of wildcats could become inevitable (30).
However, we shouldn’t assume that domestic cat ancestors were easier to tame than other wildcats. Many wild cat species, including the distant relatives of domestic cats: caracal, lynx, and leopard can be tamed successfully (31). Leopards (Prionailurus bengalensis) from China had a very similar relationship with humans as did Anatolian farmers with F. s. lybica wildcats (16, 19). Whatever the reason, a human and leopard relationship did not last.
The adaptation to living with humans proved the beneficial survival strategy for domestic cat ancestors. Unlike living in the wild, life in villages meant a stable supply of food: a huge number of rodents and scraps from human waste. It’s likely humans also fed cats to encourage them to stay because cats kept rodent populations under control. Tame wildcat population increased considerably and outnumbered untamed wildcats, although wild and tame populations were not separate.
Finding the ancient Anatolian Cat
Human and cat burial in Cyprus (26) is an important finding because it points towards the Anatolian origin of the domestic cat (Figure 3 and 3a).
Unfortunately, archaeologists have not yet located any more similar burials in Anatolia. Although cat bone fragments were found in ancient settlements, such as Çatalhöyük (32, 33, 34), Hallan Çemi (35), Aşıklı Höyük (4), Bademağacı and other sites, we don”t know whether these cats were tame or wild.
Research shows that inhabitants of one of the largest Neolithic settlements, Çatalhöyük (Konya province), welcomed the small carnivores and wildcats into their houses because these animals helped to deal with mice invasion (33, 36).
Yet, randomly distributed remains of cats in Çatalhöyük and in other settlements, do not give us any insights into the cat and human connection. It is possible that some wildcats were human companions, yet no documented evidence for their relationship survived. The remains of cats or even their burials could be in the area outside the settlements, often missed by archeologists (37).
Feline symbolism frequently appears in the Anatolian art from the Neolithic period (38). Female figurines from Çatalhöyük and Hacılar are accompanied by felines, probably leopards or lions. It is possible that some of these figurines and other artifacts (Figure 5) depict the domestic cat ancestors, as seen in the 7,500-year-old Hacılar example, where a woman holds an animal that looks similar to the domestic cat (Figure 4).
Another example is a plaster head from Çatalhöyük, dated circa 8,500 years (Figure 5, left). Archeologist and a director of Çatalhöyük Research Project, Prof. Ian Hodder thinks that this plaster head portrays a feline (39).
But probably the most remarkable finding is a cat head of carved stone from Shillourokambos site, southern Cyprus (40). This sculpture is almost 10,000 years old (Figure 5, right).
Research confirms that Anatolia is likely a homeland of cats
Archaeological evidence alone is not sufficient to determine where the domestic cat was first tamed. The genetic studies of recent cat populations already confirmed that only one species of wildcat gave rise to all the domestic cats. This wildcat lived in the area vaguely defined as the “Near East” (5).
To reveal the exact location of where domestic cat ancestors came from, we need to study the ancient DNA.
What is the ancient DNA? It is DNA extracted from an ancient material, such as bones of felines discovered in ancient settlements.
The study (Ottoni et al., 2017) extracted Mitochondrial DNA from remains of cats excavated in Neolithic settlements, such as Aşıklı Höyük, Bademağaçı, and much younger sites, Sagalassos, Demirci Höyük. The oldest specimen of the cat in this study was almost 10,000 years old and came from Aşıklı Höyük site (Central Anatolia). The primary analyses showed that cats from these places belonged to F. l. lybica species (4). It may come as a surprise for many, who believed that F. l. lybica wildcats could not be found in Anatolia. It turns out that F. l. lybica wildcats lived in Anatolia long before the arrival of farmers, and its range extended up to the Balkans and Caucasus.
According to a study, F. lybica wildcats’ maternal lineages Clade A and B, which are the most ancient, originated from the Anatolia Region (Figure 6). Clade C appears have been acquired more recently – about the 8th century BC. This lineage is associated with Greek and Roman expansion. Researchers speculate that Clade C came from Egypt, however, the event of mass importation of cats from Egypt to Anatolia is highly unlikely. It is plausible that this lineage was present in Anatolia before, and could be detected in South Eastern Anatolian and Northern Syrian cats (samples from these regions were not included in a study). Apparently, cats from Anatolia did migrate to Egypt and beyond: Clade A can be found in cats throughout Africa.
Researchers think that other minor lineages of F. l. lybica (Clade D and E) have been incorporated more recently through admixture with wild populations. Surprisingly, Asian wildcat, F. l. ornata, also managed to get into the domestic cat genetic history (4, 41). Research suggests that Asian wildcats were brought via trade routes to the Near East and Europe and interbred with local wildcats (4). The research on domestic cat origins still continues and may yield to some unexpected findings. Archaeozoologist Wim Van Neer is currently conducting follow-up study on cat domestication. In the future, researchers will sequence whole genomes of ancient and modern cats, which will provide us with more reliable and interesting data. The study led by Wim Van Neer plans also to include 10 cat samples from Çatalhöyük site (42). The study may reveal the origin of Clade C and expand our current knowledge of the domestic cat history.
“Neolithic revolution” brought profound changes in both human and cat history. The beginning of agriculture and animal domestication led to the emergence of sedentary communities that later grew into the first farming villages. These changes created an opportunity for the development of a human-cat relationship which began when l. lybica wildcats started hanging around the farming communities in Anatolia, about 10,000 years ago.
Throughout these thousands of years, humans had no intention of changing a cat in any way. Although cats still genetically resemble their wild ancestors, many still believe that cats are domesticated.
In the second part of the series, we will talk about cat domestication: is a cat really domesticated or just tame?
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