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Farmers In Ancient China Domesticated Wild Leopard Cats

Modern house cats, Felis catus, came from the wildcat known as Felis silvestris lybica that were native to Southwest Asia and the Middle East. It is widely believed that humans started taking cats as pets about 10,000 years ago following the birth of agriculture.

Buried cats were found in several human burial sites from ancient times including in a Neolithic community dating back 9,500 years ago. In an elite burial site in Hierakonpolis, Egypt, they also found cat burials dating back 8,000 years ago.

But they found something else in China, particularly in the Quanhucun village in Hunan, China. Feline fossils analysis found that wild leopard cats might have been domesticated by Chinese farmers over 5,000 years ago. These ancient wild cats and today's beloved house cats came from different species.

Findings suggest that humans may have petted two different types of cats in the past but F. silvestris replaced the wild leopard cats as China's pet choice. While more research is needed to conclude this missing part in pet cat history, the first record of F. catus in China is in the Tang dynasty but the date of their arrival remains unsure.

A statement from the National Center for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique or CNRS), suggests that the F. catus could have arrived in China along with the opening of Silk Road wherein Han and Roman empires began establishing the links between East and West.

But National Cancer Institute's geneticist Carlos Driscoll said China's latest domesticated wild cat fossils could have been an accident, which means it could actually be wild animals that were tamed post-hunting.

"It could be that the cat with a broken femur was caught in a snare, broke its leg, but was kept alive as a curiosity or a pet," said Driscoll.

Driscoll added that this type of taming is popular during the early years of agricultural communities around the world. Driscoll, who studied cat genetics, wasn't involved in the latest study. If the newly unearthed fossils turned out to be F. silvestris, the study would have been more complicated and interesting.

"As it is, the paper is still important, but we know the end of the story even if we don't know the middle," Driscoll added.

Photo: Lisa Campeau | Flickr

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