The DNA of all domestic cats has no trace of any wild cat species other than the African wildcat (also Near Eastern wildcat and Arabian wildcat – felis silvestris lybica). However, 10,000 years ago, there were a number of other suitable wild cat candidates who could have become the ancestor of the modern-day domestic cat. Those that had the most potential are listed below (there are a number of other small wild cats not mentioned).
Jungle cat – felis chaus – Ancient Egyptians tamed them in considerable numbers. However, they are heavier than the wildcat and large enough to prey on young gazelles and chitals. There is evidence that the Egyptians tried to train them to be rodent controllers. Clearly it failed on a large scale. If they had succeeded there would perhaps have been a species of modern (and larger) domestic cat that were descended from the jungle cat. It is thought that the jungle cat is depicted in the statues of cats from Ancient Egypt. This wild cat species looks like today’s Abyssinian cat. Some people think there is a connection. The Abyssinian cat might be a jungle cat x domestic cat hybrid from India. If this is the case the jungle cat does have a stake, albeit a small one, in the history of the domestication of the cat.
Sand cat – felis margarita – this is a cute wildcat that looks like a domestic cat that has been breed to an extreme! The ears are very large because they hunt by night and use hearing to detect prey. They can travel large distances searching out prey. The sand cat is comparatively unafraid of people (as is, incidentally, the Andean mountain cat). This very cute and small wildcat would have made a very popular domestic cat on the basis of appearance. It is probably more aesthetically attractive than the wildcat. However, the sand cat is a specialist. They are made for desert life. They are the only true dessert living cats. Their feet are covered in fur to protect them from the hot sands. Because of this, few sand cats would have found themselves in and around the grain storage areas of the settlements of the Natufarians who inhabited the area that is now Israel-Palestine, southern Lebanon, south-western Syria and Jordan from 11,000 to 8,000 BCE. It is thought that the Natufarians first domesticated the wildcat. They lived in wooded areas away from the sand cat’s domain – the desert. This precluded the sand cat from becoming the modern day domestic cat.
Fishing cat – felis viverrina or Prionailuurus viverrinus – although a small wild cat species it is at the top end in terms of size of the small wild cats. It is a strong cat that is genuinely built for catching fish and aquatic birds but can catch young deer. It is a good swimmer and can swim under water. Although it will hook fish out of the water while standing near it. Small rodents are part of their diet. The fishing cat’s diet precluded in from being domesticated as the first farmers wanted a cat that mainly fed on rodents to protect grain.
Manul (Pallas’s cat or Pallas cat) – Otocolobus manul – this is a very interesting looking small wild cat species that could have become the ancestor of the domestic cat. In fact, at one time experts thought it was the ancestor of the modern Persian cat. It is found in Central Asia. The manul was occasionally tamed and kept as a rodent catcher. I suspect the manul did not become the domestic cat because of where it lives – relatively remote. It’s character too was no doubt less suited to domestic life.
Jaguarundi – Puma yagouaroundi – this is a strange looking wild cat species that looks half otter and half cat. If this cat had become the ancestor of today’s domestic cat we would have had a completely different looking cat companion in our homes. This species of small wild cat was also tamed, we believe. However, it did not catch on to become a worldwide phenomenon. This cat is found in South/Central America and Mexico. Once again I suspect the location is a factor in limiting the domestication of this cat.
Margay – Leopardus wiedii – this is a cute (but athletically strong) small wild cat species living in Central America that is tamed and the cubs are stolen to be used as pets (sadly). They are quite good “pets”. The non-central location in respect of early human settlements probably prevented the domestication of this cat spreading throughout the world. Also the Margay is far less prevalent than the wildcat.
Therefore, it is the species of small wild cat that is confusingly called the “wildcat” that came out on top in the race to be a human companion. Did it work out well for both parties?
It is interesting that a subspecies of wildcat, the Chinese desert cat (also called Chinese mountain cat) was not domesticated. The Chinese desert cat is an equal to the African wildcat in terms of suitability for domestication. China has an ancient culture and society. Domestication could have happened but it seems on this occasion the reason why it did not was because the Chinese did not desire it to happen.
The wildcat was (still is) found across a huge part of the planet from Britain to China. At one time the wildcat population was much larger and denser and the cat’s range more continuous than it is today. That widespread presence would have been a major factor in bringing human and cat together to form the partnership that we now accept as a norm.
The pictures are from this video and copyright the artists (you’ll see their credits in the video):