Recently, the ancestry of dogs has been a popular topic. I think it’s super sweet to think about how our partnership led to companionship. The story of how the human-dog relationship began is very two-sided in that wolves started hanging around and then humans decided to bring them in. The story of the human-cat relationship is much more one-sided. Believe it or not, cats domesticated themselves.
Their story begins in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 BP (Before Present, strangely refers to before 1950 lol) with the ancestor of Felis silvestris lybica or the African wild cat, the O.G. of cats. If you have a domestic short hair or American short hair, you probably will find it difficult to see any differences.
In the Fertile Crescent, grain farmers attracted mice with their stored harvests. These mice became a new and reliable food source for wildcats. But of course, there is no such thing as a free, or in this case, easy lunch.
Wildcats are extremely solitary, only coming together to mate, presenting the cats with major psychological hurdles to overcome. Not only did the cats have to get over being near each other, they also had to get over the fear of humans and their dogs. The cats who were able to do this ended up being wildly successful, forgive the pun.
Over time, the farmers started to see value in having these cats around. Instead of the artificial selection that created dogs, the cats were subject to natural selection. First, it was selection against fearfulness and then later during the Golden Age in Egypt, it is thought that they were both naturally and artificially selected for sociability since cats were living in their largest populations ever.
Because cats were still used primarily as mousers and many cats, like they still do, live unaided or mostly unaided by humans, they retained their ability to hunt and all of their weaponry. This is why our beloved kitties that we love to cuddle and who love to sit on our keyboards, are still fierce hunters. Cats ended up a worldwide treasure after they were brought aboard ships as mousers and from there the cats would jump ship and start colonies in port cities all over the world.
This kind of self-domestication is not as unorthodox as it may seem. As you read this there is a huge population of raccoons living in and around urban areas. Thriving on our garbage, they are becoming less shy of humans and our animals and could one day be let in and fed from their own bowls. They thrive on our garbage so much so, that their dumpster diving habit has earned them the adorable nickname, trash panda. Trash pandas sounds so cute, right? Obviously, the person who came up with the name never cleaned up after a raid.
All this and more about domestication of pets and livestock can be found in Richard C. Francis’ book Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World. The link can be found at the bottom of this page.