Housecats around the world can now trace their ancestry back to the Near Eastern wildcat, which today lives in the remote deserts of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East.
Scientists have discovered that early farmers in this region were probably the first to domesticate wild cats. When people from this region migrated to new areas, such as Europe and the Americas, they probably brought the cats with them.
These findings will be published on the June 29 issue of the journal Science.
Until now, researchers have not known very much about the genetic differences among different types of cats. In fact, many wild and domestic cats look so much alike, that it is hard to tell which is which, just from looking at them.
Although all cats belong to the same species, there are several subspecies of wildcats, including the European wildcat, the Near Eastern wildcat, the Central Asian wildcat, the southern African wildcat, and the Chinese desert cat.
Carlos Driscoll of the National Cancer Institute and the University of Oxford and his colleagues used DNA samples from almost 1,000 wild and domestic cats to learn more about how different types of cats are related to each other.
The researchers compared the DNA sequences to determine which subspecies were most closely related. They found that each of the subspecies as well as domestic cats fell into a group, or "clade," that was genetically distinct.
One of the clades included domestic cats and some wildcats from the Middle East. This suggests that wildcats from this region became the first domesticated cats.
Some scientists think that cat domestication occurred once humans settled into villages and began farming. The villages and the grains that the farmers were storing might have attracted mice, which then would have attracted cats. Once people saw how useful the cats were, they might have tried to tame them in order to keep them around to catch mice.