60-Second Science

Cats Were Kept In China 5 Millennia Ago

Archaeologists found evidence of cat domestication in China dating back some 5,300 years. Cynthia Graber reports

Cats and humans have been adopting each other for millennia. Four-thousand-year-old Egyptian art provides evidence of cat domestication. A 9,500-year-old grave in Cyprus revealed a wildcat near a human. But the act of domestication in between those periods has been fuzzy in the archaeological record.

Now research from China fills in some of the gap.

In the remains of a 5,300-year-old agricultural village, scientists found eight bones that belonged to at least two cats. The date is 3,000 years earlier than previous estimates of Chinese cat domestication.

The researchers analyzed human, cat and rodent bones. The size of the cats indicates domestication, as they’re smaller than their wild European relatives. Isotopes showed that they had all eaten a fair amount of millet. One of the cats lived to a particularly old age, while the other ate less meat and more millet than a cat might prefer.

The research is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Yaowu Hu et al., Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication]

The scientists theorize that cats were attracted to rodents and grain in villages, and that people cared for the cats to help control the rodents. Thus creating the mutually beneficial relationship that cats and people still enjoy.

—Cynthia Graber

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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