They’re the stars of internet videos and countless memes, but long before they became a social media darling, cats may have just dominated the world.
A new look into cat DNA shows how the species has developed over time and gained the skills that helped cats rule the world.
Today, cats can be found on every continent except for Antartica. The domesticated cats we know today came from the wild cat, which was native to Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Although there are a few variations of wild cats, scientists now believe that they all came from a single species of wild cat around 10,000 years ago. The first wave of human interaction likely occurred around 9000 BC in the Near East.
DNA analysis from an extensive new study of domesticated cats shows that cats lived alongside humans for thousands of years before they were domesticated. Researchers studied 200 cats spanning 9,000 years to find out that modern domesticated cats’ DNA is nearly identical to their ancestors from thousands of years ago.
“There were two taming events–one in the Near East at the beginning, and one in Egypt much later,” said lead researcher Eva-Maria Geigl. “And then the cat spread very efficiently all over the ancient world as a ship’s cat. Both lineages are now present in modern cats.”
The earliest cat interactions with humans occurred probably around 4440 BC and lived in southeast Asia. These cats likely lived mainly in agricultural areas with the main purpose of getting rid of rodents. Cats likely approached human settlements over time.
“This is probably how the first encounter between humans and cats occurred,” says study coauthor Claudio Ottoni. “It’s not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages,” he says. Instead, people more or less allowed cats to domesticate themselves.
Another wave of cats spread throughout Egypt and the Mediterranean around 1500 BC. Humans probably liked cats because they were relatively tame and social and could travel alongside them on trade journeys to get rid of mice and rats. Cats began to spread around the rest of the world as they travelled on those journeys and were exposed to new areas.
Cats have barely evolved in all their time on earth as they transitioned from helper animals to modern pets. The only difference in DNA is adding the tabby cat markings. Domesticated cats are also more social than their wild counterparts and can tolerate humans and other cats.
Unlike other animals that have been domesticated, humans didn’t necessarily choose cats—it likely resulted from the large number of cats and the mutually beneficial relationship they could provide.
On paper, cats aren’t the best candidates for domestication because they lack a hierarchal social structure and are solitary predators; however, they seemed to have proved themselves with their relatively calm demeanor and ability to keep the rodents away.
Today, cats are one of the most popular pets in the world, with more than 74 million cats living as pets in the U.S. alone.
“We’re discovering incredible things about where they’ve come from, how far they’ve gone, and what kind of impact they’ve had on humans,” Ottoni says. “I think studying more about this species is going to open up even more about the domestication process.”
No matter if you’re a cat person or not, the spread of the species around the world is quite remarkable. As we come to learn more about how cats have become a large part of many areas of the world, we can better understand and appreciate the role they play in the history of the world.