In one of the most comprehensive explorations of cats’ origins to date, Lyons and her colleagues spent about five years collecting feline DNA, poking behind the whiskers of more than 1,100 Persians, Siamese, street cats and household tabbies around the world to swab inside their mouths. The genetic samples came from 22 breeds of fancy cats, mostly in the United States, along with an assortment of feral and pet cats in Korea, China, Kenya, Israel, Turkey, Vietnam, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Egypt, Italy, Finland, Germany, the United States and Brazil.
By analyzing 39 genetic signposts in the samples, the researchers were able to investigate a variety of questions, including which breeds are most closely related and where they most likely originated.
The first thing the group did was confirm a report published last June in the journal Science that the domestication of cats about 10,000 years ago appeared to have occurred in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, which stretches from Turkey to northern Africa and to modern-day Iraq and Iran.
Speaking of Iran, Persians don’t seem to be from Persia, the researchers found. So how come people and cats seem to get along so well (mostly)?
Cats probably started living close to humans when people evolved from nomadic herding to raising livestock and crops and started storing food, which attracted mice and other rodents. Cats found good hunting there, and humans surely appreciated the sly little predators’ help protecting their stocks.
“There was a mutual benefit,” Lyons said. “There was a food source of mice and rats all around the grain. So it was beneficial for both cats and humans as the cats came closer to human populations and kind of domesticated themselves.”
That is to say, the cats domesticated the people.