Changing Planet

Earliest Cat Domesticated in China Was the Leopard Cat, Scientists Say

The wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) is the common ancestor of the 500 million house cats (Felis catus) in the world today. It was domesticated in Africa and the Middle East around 10,000 years ago, about the time humans started farming and storing grain. The proliferation of rodents around granaries was a magnet for wildcats; farmers would have been grateful to have them around. (House Cat Origin Traced to Middle Eastern Wildcat Ancestor)

But the wildcat ancestor of today’s beloved family pet was not the only species of felid to adapt to human society and be domesticated, according to research published in the science journal PLOS ONE on January 22.

In China a different species, the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), adapted independently to living with humans before the domesticated wildcat arrived in the region. The leopard cat that domesticated in China did not, however, persist across the millennia; house cats in China today are descended from the wildcat, like everywhere else on the planet. The leopard cat survives in Asia as a widespread and relatively common wild species.

The discovery of the earliest evidence of cat domestication in China was made by scientists of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research), a public organization under the responsibility of the French Ministry of Education and Research. CNRS scientists were trying to determine if cats became domesticated independently in China, or whether domesticated cats were introduced to China along trading routes from the west.

Analysis of small bones found in the remains of several agricultural settlements from 5,000 years ago found the answer: the earliest known domesticated cats in China were those of the leopard cat species, and not the wildcat species that became domesticated in Africa and the Middle East.

So two species of cat domesticated independently, most likely both in response to the rise of agriculture.

The leopard cat was in a way domesticated again in the 1960s, producing, by hybridization with domestic cats from the silvestris species, a cat breed known as the Bengal breed, according to a news release about this research published by CNRS.

Illustration of Javan leopard cat from Richard Lydekker's "A hand-book to the Carnivora", 1896
Illustration of Javan leopard cat from Richard Lydekker’s “A hand-book to the Carnivora”, 1896.

Did you know that in addition to the leopard cat there are 37 species of wild cats on Earth today? Wild cats include not only the iconic “king of the jungle,” the lion, and the world’s largest cat, the tiger, but also obscure felids like the flat-headed cat, fishing cat, and oncilla. Look at pictures and learn about the astonishing diversity of felids at Secrets of the World’s 38 Species of Wild Cats.

Learn More About Domestication of the Leopard Cat in China

Modern Old World distribution of the different wild cat subspecies (Felis silvestris) and the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), and location of the three Middle-Late Neolithic sites of the Shaanxi and Henan Provinces (China) analysed in this paper:(Vigne et al/PLOS One]. Click map to enlarge it.
Modern Old World distribution of the different wild cat subspecies (Felis silvestris) and the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), and location of the three Middle-Late Neolithic sites of the Shaanxi and Henan Provinces (China) analysed in this paper:(Vigne et al/PLOS One]. Click map to enlarge it.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Kevin Burke

    Interesting article.
    I wonder whether the writer could explain to a polar bear or even a sperm whale that the Tiger is Earth’s largest predator.

    • David Maxwell Braun

      You’re right, Kevin, I did not articulate that correctly. I made the edit. Thanks for reading! DB

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