Friday, June 29, 2007

Why Do Cats Hang Around Us? (Hint: They Can't Open Cans)
Your hunch is correct. Your cat decided to live with you, not the other way around. The sad truth is, it may not be a final decision.

But don't take this feline diffidence personally. It runs in the family. And it goes back a long way -- about 12,000 years, actually.

Those are among the inescapable conclusions of a genetic study of the origins of the domestic cat, being published today in the journal Science.

The findings, drawn from an analysis of nearly 1,000 cats around the world, suggest that the ancestors of today's tabbies, Persians and Siamese wandered into Near Eastern settlements at the dawn of agriculture. They were looking for food, not friendship.

They found what they were seeking in the form of rodents feeding on stored grain.

Sum: They sampled various wild cat species from all over the globe, but found that modern domestic cats were descended not from a lot of local species, but from a single species native to the Near East. That implies that domestication occurred throughout the world by migration of already-domesticated cats rather than local in situ domestication of local species.

They explain this as a new habitat/resource having been developed through agriculture and its concomitant concentrations of stored grain which attract concentrations of rodents, etc. This, they say, led to cats hanging out around people and eventually selecting those characteristics that allowed the cats to be more tolerant of human presence.

I tend to think their angle on it is a little misleading. One could argue, as David Rindos has, that all domestication is a form of co-evolution. That is, the critters get as much evolutionary benefit from the relationship as the humans do. This is at odds with our notions of both evolutionary benefit -- it doesn't refer to the individual's well-being, but the reproductive success of the population -- and the domestication process. The latter we tend to view as more of a conscious act by people to actively domesticate plants and animals for our benefit. This leads to all sorts of explanatory problems, most notably "Why didn't they do it earlier then?" So, it may not be all that different from any other domesticate.

At any rate, the results were still interesting. At first, I thought the whole grain-attracting-mice-attracting-cats idea was a just-so story -- I guess it still is -- but it makes some sense. Agriculture seems to have spread out from the Middle East by actual movements of people rather than ideas or products (at least to Europe) and rats and mice seem to follow wherever people go (e.g., island hopping with Polynesians), so one could easily see the cats simply following the food source.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more neat this seems. Are there cat remains associated with New World agriculture? If not, why didn't a similar domestication occur there in conjunction with agricultural development? What sort of archaeological association is there with cats and early agriculture? Can you map domestic cat remains alongside the spread of agriculture?

So, very neat article I think.

"Interesting theory. Now, get me some fish flakes while you're up."