Sometime around the invention of agriculture, the cats came crawling. It was mice and rats, probably, that attracted the wild felines. The rats came because of stores of grain, made possible by human agriculture. And so cats and humans began their millennia-long coexistence.
This relationship has been good for us of course—formerly because cats caught the disease-carrying pests stealing our food and presently because cleaning up their hairballs somehow gives purpose to our modern lives. But this relationship has been great for cats as species, too. From their native home in the Middle East, the first tamed cats followed humans out on ships and expeditions to take over the world—settling on six continents with even the occasional foray to Antarctica. Domestication has been a fantastically successful evolutionary strategy for cats.
A comprehensive new study of DNA from ancient cat skeletons and mummies spanning 9,000 years traces the spread of cats from the Middle East to the rest of the world. The whole study, from conception to publication, took about 10 years—not least because of the work it took to find ancient cat remains.
“Cat remains are scarce,” says Eva-Maria Geigl, a paleogeneticist at Institut Jacques Monod and an author on the study. We don’t eat cats for food, so their bones don’t end up in ancient trash piles the way pig or chicken bones do. Geigl and her colleagues, especially Wim Van Neer, wrote to museums and collections asking to sample cat remains found in archeological digs. The team ultimately got bone, teeth, or hair from 352 ancient cats—including Egyptian cat mummies at the British Museum.