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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 June 2007, 19:42 GMT 20:42 UK
DNA traces origin of domestic cat
Cat  Image: AP
Paws for thought: Domestic cats stem from Middle Eastern stock
Domestic cats around the world can trace their origins back to the Middle East's Fertile Crescent, according to a genetic study in Science journal.

They may have been domesticated by early farming communities, experts say.

But the study suggests the progenitors of today's cats split from their wild counterparts more than 100,000 years ago - much earlier than once thought.

At least five female ancestors from the region gave rise to all the domestic cats alive today, scientists believe.

The earliest archaeological evidence of cat domestication dates back 9,500 years, when cats were thought to have lived alongside humans in settlement sites in Cyprus.

However, the new results show the house cat lineage is far older. Ancestors of domestic cats are now thought to have broken away from their wild relatives and started living with humans as early as 130,000 years ago.

Near Eastern wildcat  Image: Science
The moggy's ancestor may have been like this wild example
The researchers focused on DNA in the mitochondria, the "power plants" of cells which supply energy and have their own genetic material.

Comparison of the genetic sequences enabled researchers to determine the relationships between different cat lineages.

The scientists found the cats fell into distinctive genetic clades, or groups.

The results show that, apart from accidental cross-breeding, European wildcats are not part of the domestic moggy's family tree.

Neither are the Central Asian wildcat, the Southern African wildcat, or the Chinese desert cat.

But domestic cats formed a clade with some wildcats from the Middle East, suggesting that today's moggy stems from the wild felines of this region.

Rodent catching

Experts believe cats originally sought out human company, attracted by rodents infesting the first agricultural settlements.

The early farmers of the Fertile Crescent - present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel - would have found the animals extremely useful for protecting their grain stores - an association that continues to this day.

"The Felidae family is well known as a successful predator - very deadly, very ferocious, very threatening to all species including humankind," said co-author Stephen O'Brien, of the US National Cancer Institute.

"But this little guy actually chose not to be that," he said. "He actually chose to be a little bit friendly and also was a very good mouser."

The study included researchers from the UK, the US, Germany, Israel, Spain and France.

New cat family tree revealed
06 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
Scottish wildcat faces extinction
26 Apr 04 |  Scotland
Dig discovery is oldest 'pet cat'
08 Apr 04 |  Science/Nature

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