In many, animal species are domesticated when humans bring them into their homes whether they want to be there or not. For example, it's mostly accepted that humans domesticated wolves, breeding them in captivity until they became the modern dogs we love today. Now, a new study of cat genetics reveals that cats just kind of hung around humans for thousands of years before they were domesticated. From Casey Smith's article in National Geographic:
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The earlier ancestors of today’s domestic cats spread from southwest Asia and into Europe as early as 4400 B.C. The cats likely started hanging around farming communities in the Fertile Crescent about 8,000 years ago, where they settled into a mutually beneficial relationship as humans’ rodent patrol.
Mice and rats were attracted to crops and other agricultural byproducts being produced by human civilizations. Cats likely followed the rodent populations and, in turn, frequently approached the human settlements.
“This is probably how the first encounter between humans and cats occurred,” says study coauthor Claudio Ottoni of the University of Leuven. “It’s not that humans took some cats and put them inside cages,” he says. Instead, people more or less allowed cats to domesticate themselves.
A second lineage, consisting of African cats that dominated Egypt, spread into the Mediterranean and most of the Old World beginning around 1500 B.C. This Egyptian cat probably had behaviors that made it attractive to humans, such as sociability and tameness.
The results suggest that prehistoric human populations probably began carrying their cats along ancient land and sea trade routes to control rodents.