Posted: September 1, 2017
Grumpy Cat stares out of your computer screen. On YouTube, a famous yellow tabby cat in a blue shirt pounds on a piano. A white cat with thick, black eyebrows becomes an internet sensation too. Yes, cats have taken over the web. But did you know that long, long ago, they took over the world?
At least, they spread around the world. But how did they move from place to place? And why did they stop living in the jungle and move to the couch instead? To find out, researchers studied ancient Romanian cat remains, Egyptian cat mummies, and modern African wildcats. They looked deep down—the deepest down you can get. They studied the cats’ DNA.
Teeny-tiny DNA molecules in cells give instructions for how a living thing will look and function. Each strand looks like a twisted ladder. Scientists spend lots of time studying human DNA. But poring over thousands of years of cat DNA? That’s a first!
Here’s how the cat story goes—as far as scientists can tell. At first, cats were totally wild. But things changed. People living long ago near the Mediterranean Sea stored grain. That drew rodents. The rodents attracted cats. Cats started to get used to people. People even started to bring cats along as mice catchers when they moved to new places. Here’s proof: In an earlier discovery, people found a cat buried beside a human in a grave scientists estimated as 9,500 years old. That was in Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. Cats don’t live around there naturally. And you can bet the cat didn’t swim across the ocean to get there! People moved it. Also, Egyptian paintings from about 3,500 years ago show cats beneath chairs. That tells us that cats were tamed way back then—and living in the house.
The researchers tracked the spread of specific cat DNA markers. They found similar DNA instructions in cats from different places and parts of history. That’s more evidence that people took them along when they traveled. Here’s something else the researchers found. Around the year 1300, many cats began having DNA that gave this direction: No more wild tiger stripes. Give this creature blotchy, housecat fur.