Cats are considered to be among the most commonly domesticated animals in the world today. However, new scientific evidence suggests that early humans may have tamed the ancestors of these felines more than once throughout history.
Zooarchaeologist Dr. Jean-Denis Vigne and his colleagues at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris examined a set of 5,300-year-old cat bones retrieved from a Chinese village called Quanhucun.
They discovered that the remains (a mandible and a pelvic bone) belonged to a species different from the Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), which is considered to be the ancestor of all modern-day house cats.
The bones closely resembled those of the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), a species that is endemic to the area.
When researchers unearthed the feline remains 15 years ago in central China, they were unsure whether or not they belonged to Near Eastern wildcats that likely made their way to farmlands in the country from the Middle East. If this were true, it would mean that the cats would have already been domesticated before they arrived to China.
However, upon closer analysis of the shapes and size of the bones, Vigne and his team found that the remains were indeed from wild leopard cats, which may have been domesticated by Chinese farmers. This suggests that another feline species other than the Near Eastern wildcat underwent a similar yet separate process of domestication.
The researchers found a few factors that point to a possible domestication of the leopard cats, such as their smaller size compared to wild leopards and the excessive wear of the animals' teeth, which suggests they were likely fed by humans.
"That's evidence of special treatment," Vigne explained. "Even if what we're seeing here is not full domestication, it's an intensification of the relationship between cats and humans."
Scientists believe that if a second domestication of felines did occur, as suggested by the recent findings, it could change people's understanding of how domestication works.
Fiona Marshall, a researcher from Washington University, pointed out that cats largely domesticated themselves. If they did undergo a second domestication, she said other animals may have also become domesticated in a similar fashion even without the help of humans.
"This is very important work that should have a great impact," Marshall said. "This is the leading edge in a shift in thinking about domestication processes."
The findings of the study are featured in the journal PLOS ONE.