June 19 (UPI) -- New genetic analysis suggests cats first became domesticated by farmers in the Near East and ancient Egypt some 10,000 years ago.
There are five subspecies of the wildcat, Felis silvestris, the domestic cat's closest relative. And while their appearance can vary by geographical location, their skeletons are indistinguishable. For this reason, archaeological evidence alone isn't sufficient to determine when and where cats were first domesticated.
To solve the mystery, scientists at the University of Leuven in Belgium analyzed DNA samples recovered from the remains of 200 cats excavated at archaeological sites in the Near East, Africa and Europe. The cat remains were dated between 100 and 9,000 years old.
The genetic analysis -- detailed in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution -- proved domestic cants descend from Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat, a subspecies native to Egypt and the Near East. Farmers in the Near East likely welcomed the presence of the wildcat, as the feline helped keep grain harvests free of rodents.
Over time, the feline's relationship with humans sufficiently altered its genome and behavior and the wildcat subspecies became domesticated. Migrating farmers brought domestic cats to new regions. Sailors brought cats aboard trading ships to hunt vermin. Thus, the domestic cat quickly spread across Europe along trade routes. Researchers have found evidence of Egyptian cats at Viking sites near the Baltic Sea.
"It's still unclear, however, whether the Egyptian domestic cat descends from cats imported from the Near East or whether a separate, second domestication took place in Egypt," researcher Claudio Ottoni said in a news release. "Further research will have to show."
DNA analysis also showed the earliest domestic cats were spotted, as they're depicted in ancient Egyptian murals. Striped cats didn't appear until the Middle Ages.