The house cat—like domestic grains and farm animals—originated in the Fertile Crescent, probably about ten thousand years ago. But unlike other cases of domestication, cats didn’t become household companions through a process of deliberate breeding; rather, it was by means of natural selection, says Carlos Driscoll, a geneticist at the University of Oxford.
Driscoll gathered genetic material from nearly one thousand domestic and wild cats to trace the house kitty’s family tree back to its roots. The depth and diversity of that tree suggest that the process of domestication took place over a widespread area and a long period of time—and it’s no accident that the timing coincides with the emergence of agriculture.
As humans made the transition from hunting and gathering to farming, they created concentrated, permanent stores of food. Stockpiles of grain attracted hungry mice, which in turn drew hungry feral cats. “If you’re a cat, what you’re looking at is the creation of a new environment that has never occurred anywhere on the planet before,” Driscoll says.
For a cat raiding a grain store in a primitive village, being tolerant of humans became an evolutionary advantage. Eventually, as villages grew, friendlier cats became more and more segregated from their wilder brethren, with natural selection acting upon the new populations of village kitties to make them increasingly docile.
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