When you watch your cat engage in every day behavior, whether it's jumping onto her cat tree, twitching her tail as she spots a bird out the window or dig around in her litter box, consider that she's the result of more than 10,000 years of evolution. Her ancestors are traced back to Felis sylvestris, a "cat of the woods" residing in the Middle East approximately 12,000 years ago.
When your cat snuggles up next to you on the couch, it's easy to forget that she has well-established wild roots in her past. Scientists have traced today's domestic cat's ancestors to the Fertile Crescent, the birth place of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean civilization. The wildcat that is the basis for your cat's development is still wandering the deserts of Middle Eastern countries, much as she did up to 100,000 years ago.
Anyone who's ever lived with a cat knows that a cat will do as she pleases, which appears to be the case with her ancient ancestor. The theory is that approximately 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, the Middle Eastern wildcat essentially domesticated herself when humans transitioned from hunters and gatherers to farmers. As people began to store the grains they grew, the crops attracted mice, which gained the attention of the wildcats. Scientists theorize that farmers began attempting to domesticate cats as they realized the cat's value to keeping rodents and pests at bay. It was a win-win for the cats and people; the cats had an ample food source and the farmers had free crop protection.
According to Science Magazine, on the surface, it's difficult to tell the difference between today's house cat and the Near Eastern wildcat, as they're of similar shape and size. When the cats began self-domesticating, they went through a relatively rapid evolutionary process during the ensuing 10,000 years: They decreased slightly in size, became more social and acquired a variety of coat patterns and colors.
As people moved and migrated, the cats did too, spreading throughout the world with human tribes. According to National Geographic, the earliest evidence of domestic cats is from Cypress, dating back 9,500 years. It hasn't been easy to link the house cat to her ancestors, and scientists have relied on genetics to distinguish between wild and domestic cats. Scientists compared genetics of the house cat with the Near Eastern wildcat, the southern African wildcat, the Chinese desert cat, the European wildcat and the Central Asian wildcat. The Near Eastern wildcat and domestic cats were in the same genetic clade, meaning they are a group of species with the same ancestor. Given the amount of genetic diversity between the house cat and the Near Eastern wildcat, the scientists estimated it took between 70,000 and 100,000 years to move from the wildcat to the cat that lives with you today.
Revered and Feared
Throughout history some people have adored and worshipped cats while others have hated and feared them. The ancient Egyptians and Romans revered cats and people in the Far East appreciated the rodent protection they offered. Europeans of the Middle Ages weren't so charitable, associating cats with the devil. The house cat's reputation recovered and today she is a popular pet worldwide. According to The Humane Society of the United States, in 2012, there were more than 95 million cats kept as pets in the United States.