In the image below I have tried to present a feel for what the Fertile Crescent was like around 10,000 years ago when ‘at least five different females from the wildcat population’ befriended farmers and founded one of the greatest populations of domestic animal companions the world has seen: the domestic cat. Of course, around half of the domestic cat population is today feral in some way or another, a testament to the failure of cat domestication in my view. But this post is about that surprising statement from Dr Bruce Fogle DVM that a mere five female wildcats are the foundation cats of the world’s domestic cat population.
“All of today’s more than 600 million domestic cats descend from these five matriarchs.” – Dr Bruce Fogle DVM
That statement, if I read it correctly, is somewhat speculative, as it is
Today, a lot of people understand that cat domestication commenced in the Fertile Crescent which is a swath of fertile land ideal for farming among the arid semi-deserts of the region. It arcs from the River Nile in Egypt through present day Israel, Lebanon and Syria into Southern Turkey. It then follows the Tigris and Euphrates rivers through Iraq and Iran down to the Persian Gulf.
Dr. Bruce Fogle DVM has a slightly different take on the very early history of the domestic cat. And for me it provides me with a better feel for that era.
The farmers of the Fertile Crescent grew wheat, barley and rye. The farms created a new habitat for the Near Eastern wildcat or in the words of Dr. Fogle a “unique biological niche”.
We know that wildcats migrated towards this new source of food because archaeological excavations revealed a large number of mouse skeletons. These were the early versions of the day’s house mouse.
Of course, the local wildcat population were attracted to the area because of the large number of prey animals feeding on the grain stored by the farmers.
And the area was somewhat protected from larger predators because it was farmland with a human presence. This made the area even more attractive for wildcats.
And as the wildcat became habituated to humans and there was the beginnings of a mutual understanding – a symbiotic relationship – the ability of the wildcat to stay calm in the presence of humans i.e. their self-domestication, instigated the very beginnings of the domestication of the cat.
The farmers tolerated the wild cats because they were useful. Their usefulness, a utilitarian role, gradually extended to companionship because wildcat kittens are very attractive. They are very similar to today’s tabby cat kittens.
In the wild, female Near Eastern wildcats have been seen to care for the young of their sisters and mothers. Dr. Fogle says that this ability also predisposes the wildcat to become tame leading to the eventual domestication of the species.