Quanhucun ‘cats’ were a different feline species
Genetic studies suggest that the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) is descended from the Near Eastern Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), a subspecies of the widely-distributed Old World Wildcat. The latter has been associated with humans since the early Neolithic, initially as a commensal that preyed on rodents and other pests in early faming settlements. A cat burial from Cyprus, dating to 7350 BC, shows that cats were valued by humans by this time, but domestication was a much later development. The Cypriot cat was large even for a wildcat and well above the size range for a domestic cat.
In 2014, archaeologists claimed to have found evidence for cat domestication in China from around 3500 BC. The Neolithic site of Quanhucun in Shaanxi Province is associated with millet farmers, who had evidently employed cats to tackle the constant threat of rats and mice to their grain. Stable isotope analysis indicates that the many rats and mice whose remains were found fed on the millet, but in turn they were preyed upon by the cats. The cats were within the modern size range, suggesting that they were domesticated although China lies well beyond the geographical range of the Near Eastern Wildcat. The discovery opened up the possibility that domesticated cats had made their way eastwards from Southwest Asia, or that the Quanhucun cats were domesticated locally from an East Asian subspecies of the Old World Wildcat.
It now turns out that neither was the case. An assessment of the remains by another group of researchers has found that the Quanhucun cats were not domesticated Near Eastern Wildcats but leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis), a small wildcat native to the region. The Quanhucun cats seem to have been a domestication of a completely different species of wildcat, but it was evidently not successful in the long term. Domesticated Near Eastern Wildcats reached China around 500 BC, and it is from these that all present-day Chinese cats are descended.
1. Vigne, J. et al., Earliest “Domestic” Cats in China Identified as Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). PLoS One 11 (1) (2016).
2. Hu, Y. et al., Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication. PNAS 111(1), 116-120 (2014).
Sacrificial burial from Predynastic Hierakonpolis dates to 3800 – 3600 BC
The remains of six cats were found in a circular pit in an elite graveyard: an adult male, an adult female and two pairs of kittens. The cats were sacrificed as part of a funerary ritual. The ages of the kittens suggest that they belonged to two different litters; furthermore the adult female was too young to have been the mother.
The relationship of the male cat to the kittens cannot be determined. If all these animals were taken from the wild, then four different captures would have been required (the male, the female and each pair of kittens). It is unlikely that this could have been accomplished in short period prior to the sacrifice. Furthermore, the slightly different ages of the kittens suggest they were born outside the natural reproductive cycle of Egyptian wild cats, with a single birth season on spring. It therefore seems likely that the cats were bred in captivity or at least in close association with humans.
The traditional view is that domesticated cats first appeared in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom around 4000 BC or possibly 300 years earlier during the latter part of the Old Kingdom, but this finding pushes the date back to the Predynastic Naqada IC-IIB period (3800 – 3600 BC).
However, the earliest evidence for an association between humans and cats is a 9,500 year old burial from Cyprus containing the remains of a human and a cat.
Open Access http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2014.02.014
- van Neer, W., Linseele, V., Friedman, R. & de Cupere, B., More evidence for cat taming at the Predynastic elite cemetery of Hierakonpolis (Upper Egypt). Journal of Archaeological Science 45, 103-111 (2014).