Origin of Domestic Cats Traced to Middle East

The domestic cats' family tree traces back to the Fertile Crescent, research shows.

Supplied by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Fertile Crescent is often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” — marked as the region that gave rise to ancient human civilization. Now, cats can be included, too, as a new genetic study shows that the ancestry of domestic cats can be traced back to the area that stretches from northern Africa to Turkey and down through modern day Iraq and Iran.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis collected cheek cell samples from more than 11,000 mixed breed and purebred cats from Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia, Africa and the Americas. The researchers used genetic markers in the cats’ DNA to determine ancestral similarities between the cats. Based on the genetic diversity of the cats in the Mediterranean, researchers say the study adds to previous evidence that cats were first domesticated in that region as ancient civilizations transitioned from nomadic herding to growing crops and tending livestock.

It’s theorized that domestic cats — and their gene pools — then quickly spread throughout the world as trade routes were developed. Researchers found that cats were genetically clustered into four different groups corresponding with a region — Europe, the Mediterranean basin, east Africa and Asia.

Cats in the Americas, including purebreds that originated in the United States, such as the Maine Coon, are genetically similar to Western European cats, the study shows. Researchers suggest that European settlers brought the cats over, but cats in the U.S. have not had enough time to develop significant genetic differences from their ancestors.

The study noted that a loss of diversity was associated with the development of cat breeds. Researchers suggest that as new breeds are developed, breeders should take precautions to maintain a broad genetic base to minimize the introduction of genetic health problems. 

The study was published in the January issue of the journal Genomics.

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