Study: Cats May Have First Cuddled Up With People 5,300 Years Ago

Dogs may be man's best friend, but new research shows that cats may have been humanity's companions for thousands of years. For more on the feline's long history with people, Audie Cornish talks with Dr. Fiona Marshall, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and co-author of a study that looks at how cats may have been domesticated almost 5,300 years ago in China.

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The human love affair with cats has a long history. But just how long has always been a mystery. That's because little was known about how and when cats were domesticated. Now, scientists say they've uncovered new clues in a trail of evidence going back some 5,300 years in a small village in China. Joining us is Fiona Marshall, an archaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis, and co-author of a study on cat domestication. Welcome to the program.

FIONA MARSHALL: Thank you very much. Delighted to talk about cats.

CORNISH: So prior to this point, how much did we know about how cats came to be domesticated compared to, say, dogs?

MARSHALL: Actually, basically, nothing compared to dogs. Very little. Dogs were attracted by food and the sight of humans who were hunting. So we think that they were attracted to bones and meat and that sort of thing and very early. Whereas cats, on the other hand, were not attracted specifically by what humans were hunting but were attracted by what farmers were growing, through the rodents that were eating the grains.

CORNISH: So did the farmers then befriend the cats? Was it like that dog relationship, or is it a situation where it's just mutually beneficial?

MARSHALL: We think that, at first, it's probably just that some braver cats were attracted to the environment. But later, the farmers did befriend the cats. Certainly, it didn't do them any harm because they could see that the cats were really helping them out by eating the rodents.

CORNISH: So did domestication change these animals over time? I don't know - are cats legitimately more social than they used to be?

MARSHALL: Yes, they are. Studies of alley cats or feral cats, actually, in Rome show us that sometimes a mother or a sister will help the other one raise a litter of kittens and they'll overlap hunting territories. Whereas, in the studies of African wildcats, that doesn't happen.

CORNISH: So help us understand. What was the prior theory about kind of where cats came from and specifically how they were domesticated?

MARSHALL: So it was thought that they came from the Near East or Africa and were domesticated there some time ago. But nobody ever thought that there would be early cats in China, so that was a big surprise. And it either means that they came over land, maybe with early herders across Central Asia to reach China, or that cats were actually domesticated in China from different populations of cats. And so it's going to take studies of ancient genetics to understand that.

CORNISH: Fiona Marshall, are you a cat person?

MARSHALL: Yes, actually, I am. And I would have to say my husband is even more of one.

CORNISH: And did this study help you better understand your own feline friend?

MARSHALL: Absolutely. It did. We have a cat called Midnight, and one of the things I've discovered from this research and people talking to me about it is definitely even having an understanding of how social cats are or are not lets us understand how meaningful their meows are or the way that they lean in against you. It's clear that cats have changed a lot. They just don't appear to have changed as much as dogs because they just don't have the same kind of need to be around us or to follow a leader.

CORNISH: Fiona Marshall, she is a professor of archeology in the department of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MARSHALL: Thank you very much.

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