Categories: Cat History

Domestic Cat History Facts (selection)

I focus on the distinct cat populations and the breeds emanating from them. The domestic cats closest wild relatives based on examining wildcat DNA are 15 wildcats from the deserts of Israel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Spread of the domestic cat

About nine thousand years ago, Near Eastern wildcats, which were domesticated to a certain extent, were taken from the place where the domestic cat was first created namely the Fertile Crescent to other parts via trade routes and one such place was Cyprus.  There are no indigenous wildcats in Cyprus.  So the eight-month-old cat buried with his human owner in Cyprus and discovered by a French archaeologist must have been brought there by Neolithic people from the country which is now called Turkey.  The age of the burial site is estimated to be 9,500 years old.

Over the centuries the tamed Near Eastern wildcat evolved both in appearance and behaviour into the domestic cat.  One intriguing aspect of this evolution is the changing coat colours and patterns of the cat.  The wildcat, as we know, has a tabby pattern and naturally at one time all the world’s domestic cats had the same pattern but today we see many variations and the most noticeable difference is that a large percentage of domestic cats have solid coloured coats.

One reason why the naturally camouflaging tabby coat has evolved into solid colours is because camouflage is no longer required for survival by the often pampered domestic cat.

How did the solid colors evolve?  The simple answer might be that people found them aesthetically pleasant.  This placed a specific evolutionary pressure upon the domestic cat. Some experts have suggested that there is a link between solid colours and how easy it is to tame a cat.

While in the beginning there was one semi-domestic cat, it is estimated that there are now 600 million and many of them are feral. Overall, in the world, there are more feral cats than domestic cats. All of them are descended from five regional genetic groups: Western Europe, Mediterranean basin, Southeast Asia, northern Asia and East Africa (only one cat breed is related to this zane: the Sokoke – a forest cat).

North American, Australian and New Zealand random bred cats are all the same genetically and they are all identical to cats from western Europe.

When cat associations describe breeds as “natural” they are referring to a regional variety that existed before the intervention of breeders employing selective breeding.

There are some surprising discoveries with respect to DNA research and the cat breeds. Researchers at the University of California investigating the genetic make-up of the breeds discovered for example that the Japanese bobtail is not very Japanese, genetically. The breed was apparently developed largely from European stock. The colours of the Japanese bobtail are described as more Western that Eastern.

The famous Persian is now unrelated to the long-haired cats from Iran, Turkey or southern Russia from where the breed is said to come. The Persian is now European and I mean that the American Persian is genetically a European Cat.

It is very hard today to define the cat breeds genetically and it is very complicated. To give a flavor of this, some time ago I wrote a page about what I described as the “cat breed mash up“.

As the domestic cat was transported via trade routes to new lands from the place of its origin (the Fertile Crescent), the cat encountered new conditions under which new mutations occurred. For example, domestic cats transported to the warmer Orient (the East) evolved into more slender, lighter colored cats which were then converted into cat breeds and classified as Orientals or “foreigns”.

It is thought that the long-haired mutation occurred when traders travelled east on the cold, high-altitude silk route to China and became isolated in the mountains of Anatolia, the Caucus and Persia. The colder climate lead to the evolution of the long haired cat.

One such isolated population occurred in the north-eastern mountains of Turkey. Supported by what is described as the “founder effect”, the specific and noticeable coat pattern of the Turkish Van evolved.  This is a coat which is orange-and-dominant-white.

Major reference: Complete Cat Care by Bruce Fogle.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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  • Hi Michael. Thanks for an interesting article. As usual I have some additional information. The definition of the Mediterranean basin regional genetic group is really quite inaccurate. There are 3 regions that have Mediterranean coast lines. Europe, North Africa, and East Mediterranean Anatolia. The genetic identities of cats in these 3 regions are quite different but in places mixed. Italy, S France and Spain are Mediterranean countries but the cats are predominantly European. Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel are also Mediterranean countries but the cats are genetically distinct from European cats. The cats from N Africa reflect the importation of cats from Europe, but Egyptian cats are a mixed bag showing that they are imports from surrounding regions. This soundly upsets the old theory that the domestic cat originated in Egypt. The most probably place of domestication and rapid population growth is Turkey where the feline genetic signatures are very homogeneous without any significant foreign influence. Furthermore Turkish cats have the highest number of alleles which indicates original founding stock and not descendants from a smaller number of cats from other regions. The attached graph shows that the Mediterranean classification has now been subdivided, but even so has some important errors. Tunisian and Italian cats are classified as East Mediterranean Anatolian which is obviously wrong and does not tally with the DNA results. This seems to be another attempt to justify the authenticity of American Angoras which in the Ascent of the Cat study was identified as being closely related to Tunisian cats whereas in fact both of these populations are of European origin. UC Davis start with a muddle, they end with a bigger muddle. So now they say that Tunisian cats are Turkish.

    • Thanks a lot, Harvey. You are the expert on this subject so I am pleased you want to add to it. I might see if I can include your comment in the article or at least part of it.

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