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The old cat and mouse game November 24th, 2019 by

Did ancient farmers domesticate cats to catch mice? If so, this would have been a classic example of biological pest control, but so far the evidence is largely circumstantial.

Evidence for domestication of a crop or animal is generally based on two lines of study, genetic and archaeological. When both types of research are well and thoroughly done, they tend to support each other. In the case of cats, we still have a ways to go for archaeology to match the genetics.

Oxford zoologist Carlos Driscoll and colleagues explain that there are five living sub-species of wildcats, from Europe to Africa to Asia. Modern domesticated cats are genetically quite close to the Near Eastern wild cat; they even share the same mitochondrial DNA. Based on genetic evidence Driscoll suggests that cats were domesticated some 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent (modern Turkey and Iraq) about the same time that grain farming and livestock tending started there.

Cat domestication at the dawn of agriculture would suggest that early farmers appreciated the wildcats as mousers. With early farming came stores of grain, attracting mice.  

Yet cats are a poor candidate for domestication, because they are obligate carnivores and solitary. Driscoll agrees with archaeologists that ancient farmers did actively domesticate herd animals (sheep, goats and cattle), i.e. penning them, culling undesired individuals, selecting for smaller, tamer, food animals. But Driscoll says that cats were different: cats domesticated themselves—much like dogs, pigs and even swallows, rats and mice. Cats were attracted to the food scraps, the fat mice, and the warm nest sites to be found on small farms. Cats moved in with the farmers, who tolerated them.

This is of course just a hypothesis, consistent with (but not demonstrated by) the genetic evidence and there is little archaeology to back it up.

Some of the earliest cat bones from an archaeological site are much later and far from the Fertile Crescent, in China, from a 6000-year-old site where Yaowu Hu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues found cat bones tossed into the refuse pits of Quanhucun village. One cat bone was from an old individual, suggesting that the individual had been cared for by farmers.

Ancient farmers quite possibly gave kittens to their neighbors, spreading cats of Near Eastern extraction from Ireland to China to South Africa. Cats then reached the Americas with the Spanish Conquest.

Cats are not universally appreciated as mice killers. Pest control advice books encourage homeowners to get traps to control mice, writing that cats bring in fleas and disease, kill songbirds, and that their effectiveness as biological control agents of mice is not scientifically documented.

My own experience suggests that if you bring a kitten into a mice-infested household, you will have no rodents left in the house or garden by the time the cat is half grown.

Modern smallholders I have met from Portugal to Honduras to Bolivia do keep cats expressly to control mice, and the cats are often treated with a respectful distance, not petted, not given medical attention and not fed (although they may be allowed to eat scraps). Even today, in the large, informal market of Cochabamba, La Cancha, kittens are sold in little wire cages, along with chickens, guinea pigs and other small farm animals.

To get back to the dawn of agriculture, if ancient farmers perceived cats as mice-killers, that may have been enough to earn cats a space to live on farms, where they could domesticate themselves.

Further reading

Driscoll, Carlos A., Marilyn Menotti-Raymond, Alfred L. Roca, Karsten Hupe, Warren E. Johnson, Eli Geffen, Eric H. Harley, Miguel Delibes, Dominique Pontier, Andrew C. Kitchener, Nobuyuki Yamaguchi, Stephen J. O’Brien, and David W. Macdonald. 2007 “The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication.” Science 317(5837): 519-523.

Driscoll, Carlos A., David W. Macdonald, and Stephen J. O’Brien. 2009 “From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106. Supplement 1: 9971-9978.

Hu, Yaowu, Songmei Hu, Weilin Wang, Xiaohong Wu, Fiona B. Marshall, Xianglong Chen, Liangliang Hou, and Changsui Wang. 2014 “Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(1): 116-120.

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