Vikings are popularly portrayed as tough seafarers who raided and traded across Europe between the late 8th and late 11th centuries, but these people have also likely kept Viking cats when they sailed ships.
Analyses of ancient cat DNA have revealed that thousands of years before they became one of the most common pets in American households, cats hopped continents as they were brought along by farmers, ancient mariners and even the hardy Vikings.
For the new study presented last week at the International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, UK, Eva-Maria Geigl and colleagues from the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris sequenced DNA from 290 cats coming from over 30 archeological excavations in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The study also included cat remains that were found in a Viking grave in Germany.
Genetic analysis of the ancient felines' remains revealed that cats likely spread out in two waves. Remains from a 9,500-year-old grave in Cyprus suggest that the first wave likely happened with the earliest farmers in eastern Mediterranean, which showed that man's relationship with felines dates back to the early days of agriculture.
The second wave happened when cats from Egypt spread to Asia and Africa, as hinted by remains of cats from Turkey, Bulgaria and Africa.
The second wave of expansion was associated with ancient seafaring people including the Vikings. The cat remains from a Viking grave in northern Germany were found to have the same maternal DNA common in Egyptian cat mummies.
The animals were likely brought on board ships during sea voyages. Mice and rats can be a problem with long voyages at sea and having cats on board can help keep down the number of these pests.
Kristian Gregersen, from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, said that people commonly used cat skins by the late Viking Age.
"We are sure that there were domestic cats then, because of their size." Gregersen said, adding that these cats did not have the same size as the wild cats.
Christian Koch Madsen, from the National Museum in Nuuk, Greenland, said that archeological evidence also shows that cats have made it to Greenland. Madsen said that these furry and intelligent creatures with the ability to understand laws of physics must have arrived aboard Viking ships.
Figures from the American Pet Products Association (APPA) show that between 74 to 96 million cats are owned in the U.S. Up to 37 percent of American households have a cat.