It’s not clear how cats were stereotyped as being aloof and independent, but if you were awakened at 5 a.m. this morning by a hungry cat sitting on your chest, you already know this reputation is undeserved. Still, cats certainly demand things on their own terms—like what time they expect breakfast to be served, or at what godawful hour they will go hunting in your hallway, yowling with a toy mouse stuffed in their maw—so the DNA study published yesterday by Nature Ecology & Evolution isn’t surprising to those who recently stepped in cat vomit, barefooted, before coffee.
The analysis looks specifically at how cats were domesticated by examining DNA from cat remains across time and geography. Non-cat-owners probably assumed that cats were domesticated by people to help with rodent problems and the like, but of course cats made the decision for themselves. National Geographic reports:
Mice and rats were attracted to crops and other agricultural byproducts being produced by human civilizations. Cats likely followed the rodent populations and, in turn, frequently approached the human settlements.
“This is probably how the first encounter between humans and cats occurred,” says study coauthor Claudio Ottoni of the University of Leuven. “It’s not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages,” he says. Instead, people more or less allowed cats to domesticate themselves.
The DNA analysis also suggests that breeding cats didn’t begin in earnest until the Middle Ages, with the now-common tabby coat, a striped pattern with the telltale “M” on the forehead, emerging around the time of the Ottoman Empire.
National Geographic also notes that—in another non-surprise to people whose toes are regularly attacked while they sleep—cats haven’t changed that much genetically from their wild ancestors:
Overall, cats became a domesticated companion of humans without changing much, says evolutionary geneticist and article coauthor Eva-Maria Geigl. … “I think that there was no need to subject cats to such a selection process since it was not necessary to change them,” Geigl says. “They were perfect as they were.”