"At least three different lines of scientific inquiry allow us to tell a story about cat domestication that is reminiscent of the old 'house that Jack built' nursery rhyme," of the cat that ate the rat that ate the malt, study co-author Fiona Marshall, a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis, said.
"Our data suggest that cats were attracted to ancient farming villages by small animals, such as rodents that were living on the grain that the farmers grew, ate and stored," she said in a university release Monday.
Cats were thought to have first been domesticated in ancient Egypt, where they were kept some 4,000 years ago, but more recent research suggests close relations with humans may have occurred much earlier, the researchers said.
Analysis of bones from at least two cats excavated from the ancient Chinese village of Quanhucun suggests a breed of once-wild cats carved a niche for themselves in a society that thrived on the widespread cultivation of the grain millet, they said, by preying on animals that lived on farmed millet, probably rodents.
One of the cats was aged, showing that it survived well in the village, the researchers said.