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June 30, 2007

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Interesting study. That humans "played little or no role in the taming of the cat" is counter-intuitive though. In the stone age, I can imagine being pissed-off enough with a badly behaving cat to spear it and roast it for dinner (sorry for the dramatic imagery, cat lovers; not only did this happen then, cats are still a delicacy for some). The docile ones would have found more support for survival. Human selection must have played a role in their evolutionary trajectory, as it does today for dogs. As this article notes, "Humans helped to shape the early dog, not by selective breeding as in later times, but by changes in selective pressures created by human settlements." The same must apply to cats, no?

Namit,
Unlike the dog which was domesticated some 100,000 years ago, the cat's entry into the human realm was fairly recent - just around 10,000 or so years ago. So, the cat found residence with the agricultural man, not the stone age spear chucker and as such may have found a kinder, gentler reception than you envision. Although I don't doubt that a few of them, especially when they first approached human settlements, must have got thrown on the grill, its rodent hunting abilities must have made a pretty quick impression on the agrarian man at pains to protect his grain. The fact that the cat needed little training to perform this useful task, may have been the reason that the early man left it alone and didn't in any way try to "train" the cat. That the cat that sleeps with me in my bed, does not differ much in temperament from its wild cousins of the jungle, probably bears testimony to the lack of man driven domestication. But the fact that it co-exists with humans peacefully, reinforces the notion that the "domestication" was a voluntary act on the part of the feline, for its own comfort, safety and on its own terms.

More than the cat's "taming" trajectory, what I found more interesting is the discovery that the common ancestors of the entire domestic cat population of the world were confined to the near east. Since wild cats are found on every continent, the bifurcation from wild to tame could have occurred anywhere, but didn't. Note also, that the five maternal lineages that have been traced, did not start out simultaneously but occurred at different times as parallel events. But that they all took place repeatedly in the middle east, points to the early development of settled agricultural communities in that region and a tolerance for the cat among the inhabitants.

Although the Egyptians are most closely associated with cats (they had the right reverential attitude!), it was in communities in other places in the near east that the earliest evidence of man-cat domestication is found.

The research on the domestication of dogs still seems unsettled. “Some research appears to show that dogs were domesticated from wolves as recently as 15,000 years ago, or perhaps as early as 100,000 years ago based upon recent genetic, fossil and DNA evidence. Other research suggests that dogs have only been domesticated for a much shorter amount of time and were domesticated from populations of wild dogs, which had previously diverged from wolves. New evidence suggests that dogs were first domesticated in East Asia, possibly China, and the first peoples to enter North America took dogs with them from Asia…” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog#Origins ">source)

That cats were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent makes sense since, as you say, here arose the first agrarian communities. The impetus for the adaptation of cats probably began with human settlements representing conditions favorable to their survival. So a bunch of cats were drawn to them, and people liked their rodent hunting skills. Now consider two cats, both with good rodent hunting skills: one ill-behaved from a human perspective (too wild, scary, vicious), the other docile and mellow. Guess which one ends up on the grill (or otherwise killed)? Over time, certain aggressive traits would tend to get weeded out of their gene pool. Your cat indeed shares the hunting instincts of its wilder cousins (no training was required for that) but it has also been selected for human friendly behavior. The same seems to have happened with dogs, where certain wolf-like traits of its ancestors were forced out of the gene pool, leading to gentler specimens on average. It’s sort of like how the average human might have turned out after a quarter-million years of selective pressure against warmongers like Cheney among us. :-)

It is amazing how many of our domestic animals have their roots in the near east (most occurred naturally only there, unlike the cats, as you say). This is a major theme in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and he considers it a key factor in the later trajectory of civilizations.

Guns, Germs and Steel is a wonderful book. I read it a long time ago and don't own a copy. Why don't you do a review if you have enough recall of Diamond's thesis?

As for cats being weeded out for friendly behavior, I agree that it probably happened to some extent. What man did NOT do with cats is selective breeding, as seems to have happened with other domestic animals like dogs, cattle, horses, donkeys (mules) who were classified according to specific "uses" like hunting, food, milk and beasts of burden. The "wild" nature of the cat on the other hand, served its purpose well enough for its limited "domestic" use. For the rest, humans probably just enjoyed their quirky, finicky and playfully charming (and wild) ways which required no training or weeding.

Yes, that makes sense to me. I read Guns, Germs and Steel years ago and liked it. It does a great job of explaining the material trajectories of various ancient peoples, until cities and trade and big religions arose and muddied up the earlier survival factors of humankind. To review it, I'd really need to read it again to do it full justice. A good starting point for those who haven't read it is this page on Wikipedia. There is also a PBS series based on the book (on my Netflix list). Diamond has written another book, Collapse; check out Partha Dasgupta's thoughtful review.

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