Egyptians, Vikings Helped Create Today's Domestic Cat

The modern-day cat, originating primarily from what is now Turkey and Egypt, used humans to spread throughout the world. ALY SONG / REUTERS

Before cats conquered the internet, they spread throughout the world at different points in time, thanks to help from Egyptians, Vikings and other groups, according to new research.

Scientists analyzing the DNA of ancient cat specimens have determined that the modern domestic cat is a descendant of a subspecies of wildcat native to northern Africa and the Near East, Felis silvestris lybica.

Their analysis, published June 19 in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, shows two primary genetic clusters of cats. The first group hails from what is now Turkey and seems to have spread south and west starting around 10,000 years ago. It's thought that cats at first "self-domesticated," hanging around farmers and villages to eat small rodents, thus providing a welcome service.

The second major group of cats came from Egypt, and this genetic subtype first shows up in mummified cats dating to 800 B.C. This type of Egyptian cat was apparently quite popular and spread throughout the Mediterranean by the fifth century. They began to outnumber the Turkish subtype in many areas.

Scholars have in fact debated the degree to which cats are truly domesticated. Unlike other animals, like dogs, the felines have always been able to do what humans have primarily wanted them to do, at least at first: prey upon small rodents. Thus, they didn't need to be bred for specific traits, in the same way that dogs were bred to hunt animals in different ways or to herd sheep.

But the genetic study suggests that at some point, people began to desire cats with different distinct appearances. The paper shows that the blotched "tabby" pattern, which is now present in about 80 percent of domestic cats, didn't show up until the medieval period and came about as the result of a mutation. People apparently liked this trait, and cats with such coloration became more popular and spread throughout the world.

Cats at this time were spread in part by mariners, who valued cats for their ability to eat mice, a major pest on ships. The researchers found that a cat that died in the Viking trading port of Ralswiek on the Baltic Sea in the seventh century belonged to a genetic subtype from Egypt. This suggests these cats were widespread at the time and used humans to make their way around the world.

The study couldn't determine conclusively whether the Egyptians independently domesticated cats, as it appears they first cohabited with humans in the Near East and Turkey. Regardless, it's likely that today's domestic cats are primarily a blend of ancient Egyptian and Turkish felines, which have distinct genetic profiles.