This DNA exchange went both directions along the trade routes, too. That led to what, at first, seemed like baffling results in the ancient DNA. For example, a 2,000-year-old cat in Egypt had DNA sequences typical of wildcats in India. Claudio Ottoni, another member of the research team now at the University of Oslo, remembers thinking it was a mistake when he first got the sequences back on his laptop. In fact, that cat was found in an ancient Roman port city called Berenike, which was directly connected to trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Humans brought cats onto ships to catch mice and, in the process, spread cats all around the world.
Compared to many other animals, cats have also changed very little in the domestication process. Behaviorally, they’ve become more tolerant of humans. Physically, though, they’re still about the same size and shape. They still like to pounce on small prey. “Cats have done since before they were domesticated what we needed them to do,” says Leslie Lyons, a feline geneticist at the University of Missouri. In other words, unlike dogs that herd sheep or hunt badgers, cats didn’t need humans to breed them to become good mouse hunters.
But wildcats and pet cats do look differently in a small but obvious way to humans: Domestic cats come in a great variety of colors and coat patterns. From the ancient DNA, Geigl and her colleagues determined that the tabby pattern first emerged in the Middle Ages based on a single letter mutation in the Taqpep gene. This was the only coat gene Geigl and her colleagues investigated. For the most part, their analysis focused on DNA in a part of the cell called mitochondria, which is more abundant that DNA in chromosomes but accounts for only a tiny fraction of genes. This is a good start, says Greger Larson, a paleogenomicist at Oxford, and it sets the stage for using ancient chromosomal DNA to further refine the story of ancient cats.
Larson has done similar work with ancient dog DNA. “It’s great that cats are the getting same long deserved treatment,” he says of the new paper. “It’s kind of strange it’s taken this long given the general interest in cats.” The dog days of ancient cat DNA are over.
How Cats Used Humans to Conquer the World – The Atlantic