UK United Kingdom

Earliest evidence of cat domestication found in China

There has been much debate about how cats went from hunting in the wild to a much-loved pet. That is because we know little…

So, you found my ancestors? Are you sure this time? epsos

There has been much debate about how cats went from hunting in the wild to a much-loved pet. That is because we know little about their domestication. Now researchers have found the earliest case of cat domestication, which happens to be in China, along with the first direct evidence of how it may have happened.

The oldest record of a cat’s association with humans comes from Cyprus where, about 9,500 years ago, a young wildcat was buried with a human. Egyptian art and cat mummies reveal that, by 4,000 years ago, cats had become loved pets. So it is clear that domestication happened in between these two dates. But many questions remains: how, where and when did it happen?

In a new study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Yaowu Hu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St Louis, and their colleagues try to answer those questions. “We have never before been able to show the nature of the relationship that resulted in domestication, especially for an animal that is solitary like cats and so rare in archaeological sites. So it was surprising to be able to document this at all,” Marshall said.

Like most evolutionary adaptations, domestication of animals can happen in multiple ways. A mutually-beneficial relationship can drive small changes that lead to a permanent change in behaviour, with or without direct human meddling. Or it could be that a prey’s numbers dwindled because of excessive hunting, which forced humans to come up with smarter animal management ideas, such as herding, that led to domestication.

The latter happened to sheep, goats and cattle. The former it was thought must have happened to cats, dogs and pigs. And thanks to Hu and Marshall, we now have evidence in case of cats. It comes from Quanhucun, a site in central China, that was a human settlement about 6,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered houses, storage pits, pottery, and some floral and faunal remains there, but few human burials. Piecing all the evidence together makes a compelling case for how domestication of cats may have happened.

The floral remains show that the settlement cultivated millet on a large scale. And the faunal remains of cats, dogs, deer and other animals tell us what these animals present at the site ate.

The isotopes in bones can tell us how old they are, but the ratio of carbon and nitrogen isotopes can also reveal an animal’s diet. These bones were about 5,300 years old. The dietary analysis showed that dogs, pigs and rodents mostly ate millet, and, not surprisingly, cats mostly hunted animals that ate millet (probably rodents). The archaeological dig revealed a rodent burrow near a storage pit, which meant farmers had a rodent problem, something that cats could help with.

“Cats were probably brought into the human environment by farming and the rodents and other food available to them in farming villages,” Marshall said. “This might have made it possible to domesticate an animal that was nocturnal and not social.”

There are other clues that show that humans had a closer relationship with the felids. The remains of one cat indicate that it got more nutrition from millet than it did by hunting, which may mean that humans fed the cat. Hu and Marshall also found a cat bone that showed it had survived well into its old age, again indicating that humans may have cared for the animal, allowing it to live longer.

Not now. My domestication story is very long. mobilestreetlife

There is one problem that has left Marshall perplexed. Most cats today are the descendants of Felis silvestris lybica, or the Near Eastern Wildcat. But Marshall cannot be certain that Quanhucun cats belong to that lineage, because they could not find enough DNA data to probe lineages. “That is the main limitation of the paper – the uncertainty of the cat species,” Hu said.

Comparison of Hu and Marshall’s data with that of domesticated cats shows that Quanhucun cats were domesticated or very close to being domesticated. However, without evidence of the lineage, we cannot be certain that what happened in Quanhucun ended up producing all modern domesticated cats.

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. Sergio Graziosi

    logged in via Twitter

    "we cannot be certain that what happened in Quanhucun ended up producing all modern domesticated cats"
    Why would we? Is there a reason to think that cats got domesticated only once? Yes, "Most cats today are the descendants of Felis silvestris lybica, or the Near Eastern Wildcat", surely that has more to do with much more recent history.
    Let's see: agriculture starts, people store grains, mice & rats thrive in the village. Cats finds lots of prey, so they hang around, they are not discouraged because…

    Read more
  2. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    There is a problem with the assertion that all cats are solitary.
    Desert cats might be expected to tolerate each other's close company in the vicinity of oases,
    And lions are said to congregate in prides.

  3. Comment removed by moderator.

  4. Phil Gorman

    Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

    The cats who share their environment with us deserve our homage. We wouldn't be here without them.

    The safe long term storage of crops and other foodstuffs has been essential to the survival of permanent human settlements since their inception, about ten thousand years ago. Buildings, domesticated animals, fields, food stores, created novel habitats. All manner of viruses, flora and fauna flourished as never before. An ecological co-revolution accompanied the first Agricultural Revolution…

    Read more
  5. David Paxton


    Thank you for raising this subject. I think that, rather than being misled by the idea of domestication as a human mediated event, it is more useful to think in terms of co-evolution. I commented a few days ago but my comment was removed, perhaps because I had a link embedded in my comment. May I ask interested persons to Google my name david paxton and than click on Unthinking Orthodoxy Presentation? Best wishes to you all for New Year.

    1. Phil Gorman

      Mendicant - retired teacher and mariner at - quite good company

      In reply to David Paxton

      'Unthinking Orthodoxy' is a fascinating exposition of very early human co-evolution with domesticated dogs and cats. The idea of extended phenotyping appeals. I look forward to reading more on this topic.

      Another close and extremely valuable companion of early human groups is The Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus murghi) the “proto chook”. Perhaps it's domestication came too late for it to have a prominent co-evolutionary role.

      The RJF and it's descendants certainly boosted the food stocks, security and economy of many households in the pre-industrial era, and during times of crisis in later times. The current resurgence of poultry keeping may, perhaps, be an indicator of a growing sense of ecological, economic and political unease.

      Happy New Year

    2. David Paxton


      In reply to Phil Gorman

      Thanks, Philip. Co-evolution with the jungle fowl is interesting. I live on an island with prolific bird life. The birds work dawn to dusk harvesting food. They are really effective as Jim writes below. It is easy to think of eating them being a way for our ancestors to harvest their environment especially trace elements. So an extended phenotype or mutualistic symbiont partners can be imagined in Darwinian terms. Problem is that poultry are now factory farmed and fed an artificial diet. What does that mean to us in relation to the intake of nutrients (not mentioning the nasties such as antibiotics and other chemicals). Be good if this question received research funding.

      The same "cooperating to compete" situation could be described for the herbivores upon which we rely and with which we evolved.

      Did you have a look at "Canis australis?" on my website? You might find it fun.

  6. Jim Inglis


    Cats were no doubt useful for controlling rodents and in unhealthy cities when plagues of rats and mice irrupted there was probably nothing left to kill them very effectively what with the many species of birds that normally do it having been removed by both the cats and the natural habitat destruction.

    But I find that I can live without cats in the bush where so many birds [and other things] do a better job.

    Cats just seem to give up in a serious rodent plague as there is only so much they can eat whereas that same plague can attract 50 species of birds in large numbers with better results.

    Pet cats, I feel, would have started more from human attraction to kittens than from their usefulness.

    Unlike dogs, cats are pretty useless most of the time.