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The Rise of the Cat

The aloof modern housecat is descended from an African wildcat that moved around with people, according to a new genetic study.

A team of European researchers examined ancient DNA samples obtained from cats found at archaeological sites around the world to piece together a picture of how that domesticated cat spread. Cats were first domesticated after people took up agriculture, and scientists suspect that they were drawn to the rats and mice that would congregate around ancient grain silos. People, seeing how they kept rodent numbers down, allowed them to stay and began to care for them.

In its new study in Nature Ecology and Evolution study, the team led by Thierry Grange and Eva-Maria Geigl, both at the University of Paris Diderot says that cats spread across the world on human land and sea routes. First, as Smithsonian magazine recounts, cats appear to have first been domesticated by farmers near the Fertile Crescent and, later, by Egyptians. They then moved with people to the Mediterranean and the Baltic and then on to Europe and Southwest Asia.

When they arrived in these new regions, the domestic cat often then interbred with the local wildcats, the researchers note. "The cat is probably the wildest of the domestic animals," Grange tells the Guardian. "And part of that is living its own life and not caring too much about there being humans around."

Additionally, the researchers pinpoint the rise of the tabby cat — such coat markings are not found among wildcats — to about the 14th century in western Turkey. That coat pattern has previously been linked to a mutation in the Taqpep gene, Discover's Dead Things blog notes.

"Today, tabby cats are absolutely everywhere — like arguably the most famous one of all, Garfield," the Verge adds. "I suppose we have those ancient farmers to thank for domesticating those sleek, proud wildcats and bringing us their descendant: a fat, lazy, lasagna-loving furball."