Origin of the Domesticated Cat

The origins of the domestic cat have long been the subject of inquiry and speculation. One cannot fail to note their similarity to the Wildcat, Felis silvestris, and consequently they have been believed to be descendants of the Wildcat.

Taxonomists have differed on the evolution of modern and extinct cats. Cats have been frequently divided into four genera, of which Felis is one. Likewise, since 1775 when Felis silvestris was first named, taxonomists have differed on the division of the Wildcat into species and subspecies.

The ongoing Cat Genome Project at the U.S. National Cancer Institute's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity in Frederick, MD published in the June 29, 2007 issue of Science magazine their initial findings of the origins of the domestic cat. They made a genetic assessment of 979 modern cats, both domestic and wild, from three continents. They found six clades of mitochondrial DNA indicating that each group represents a distinct subspecies of Felis silvestris:

I - Felis silvestris silvestris, European Wildcat or Forest Cat
II - Felis silvestris cafra, Southern Africa Wildcat
III - Felis silvestris ornata, Asiatic Steppe Wildcat, Asiatic Desert Cat, and Indian Wildcat
IV - Felis silvestris lybica, North African Wildcat and Near Eastern Wildcat
    and Felis silvestris catus, Domestic Cat
V - Felis silvestris bieti, Chinese Desert Cat and Chinese Mountain Cat
VI - Felis silvestris margarita, Sand Cat

This DNA research found that the Near Eastern Wildcat and Domestic Cat share five lineages, indicating that domestication occurred at least five separate times, i.e., each of the five common ancestors coalesced separately. The common ancestors were estimated to have coalesced 131,000 years ago. The researchers concluded that domestication occurred in the Near East, particularly in the Fertile Crescent region (modern-day Iraq), at least 10,000 years ago if not as much as 100,000 years ago.

There are many surprises in these findings. It reclassifies four cats: The Chinese Desert Cat was originally named Felis bieti, a separate species, in 1892; the Southern Africa Wildcat was originally named Felis cafra in 1822 and renamed as Felis lybica cafra in 1944; the Sand Cat was originally named Felis margarita in 1858; and the Scottish Wildcat was originally named Felis silvestris grampia in 1907 (it has been found to be F. s silvestris). The notion that the European Wildcat is an ancestor of some domestic cats like the Norwegian Forest Cat was disproved. The most surprising is that the time and location of domestication differs from previous ideas: that cats domesticated in Egypt about 4000 years ago.

More information on the Cat Genome Project can be found on their website. The Linnean Classification of the Order Carnivora includes the first naming of the various cats. An earlier, 2006, report by the Cat Genome Project addressed the evolution of all cats, not just the domestic cats. I have summarized all recent findings in Origins of the Domesticated Cat.

Revision: 11-11-2007.