While the original ancestors of your utterly domesticated house kitty aren't around any more, scientists have traced Fluffy's genetic genealogy back about 10,000 years. Your lap-dwelling cat may not act the part, but her origins reach back to a handful of opportunistic wildcats in the Near East.
All modern cats descend from a group of five female members of the species Felis silvestris lybica, a type of wildcat that lived in an area now encompassing Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The original species doesn’t exist anymore, but these five mama wildcats left a legacy that makes up all household and feral cats in the world, as well as some modern wildcats.
Scientists used DNA analysis of domestic cats and wildcats from all over the world to narrow down the possible ancestors of modern cats. Because modern cats all have one of five specific variants of mitochondrial DNA, which is only inherited from the mother, they must all be descended from an initial set of five female wildcats.
Modern wildcats are divided into five different species: the Near Eastern wildcat, the Southern African wildcat, the Central Asian wildcat, European wildcat and the Chinese desert cat. However, these cats are cousins to modern-day domestic cats, not members of an ancestral species. The same ancestor species birthed both the Near Eastern wildcat and all domestic cats, so this is the wildcat most closely related to your fuzzy friend.
The wildcat ancestors of all modern cats probably started hanging out with humans when people began to develop agriculture. An abundance of grain and seeds in these ancient human settlements probably attracted mice and rats, so wildcats moved into human settlements to hunt these rodents. While ancient people probably first appreciated these new feline friends for their pest-control abilities, they were probably quickly won over by the playfulness of wildcat kittens and the affectionate yet independent personalities of the adult cats. Once people started feeding and caring for these friendly and useful wildcats, they set the stage for cats to move indoors and become domesticated.
Your Little Wild Cat
It's hard to imagine your pampered pet as a denizen of the wild, but when she's pouncing on pretend prey or marking her territory by urinating in places you weren’t expecting, you can catch a glimpse of her wild side. In fact, many problem behaviors in cats can be traced to the cat simply following her wild instincts.
Bridget Coila specializes in health, nutrition, pregnancy, pet and parenting topics. Her articles have appeared in Oxygen, American Fitness and on various websites. Coila has a Bachelor of Science in cell and molecular biology from the University of Cincinnati and more than 10 years of medical research experience.