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Cat Ancestors

Updated on October 17, 2021
Written by
Joel
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The cats of today live in a different world from that of their ancestors. Sadly, this could sometimes lead to unwanted behavior and stress.

According to Statista, there are about 370 million cats kept as pets around the world. According to the same source, over 75 million people in Europe have pet cats. This is compared to 65 million that own dogs in the same region. This shows that more people prefer to share a roof with a furry friend instead of a canine companion.

Part of being a responsible cat owner is knowing where your cat came from. This will allow you to make the necessary adjustments so you can give your cat a happy, healthy life.

The Evolutionary History of Domestic Cats

Before the cat shows, cat memes, and YouTube pages. Cats played several roles in early human history. Some ancient cultures honored cats as gods and little helpers. Some saw them as the harbinger of evil, bad omen, and misfortune. 

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Some ancient cultures that saw them as evil might want to know that today, we celebrate our feline friends on August 8th of every year. It is now known as the "International Cat Day.”

Cats have been with us for thousands of years. They have evolved progressively with humans as cultures developed.

Where did it all begin with our feline friends? 

Classification

The domestic cat belongs to the Felidae family. It arose, took shape, and roamed around near eastern Asia about 8-11 million years ago.  

The first was the Machairodontinae, also known as saber-toothed cats”. This subgenus later spawned the Pantherinae, or large cats such as lions, tigers, and panthers.

The second, the Felinae is where the "conical-toothed" cats came from. This gave rise to smaller felines such as pumas, cheetahs, bobcats, and of course, the domestic cat.

The subfamilies are distinguishable by unique evolutionary traits. This is apart from the obvious size difference.

Cats in the Pantherinae subfamily can roar but cannot purr. Those in the latter subfamily, on the other hand, can purr but are not equipped to roar.

Features and Adaptation

From the evolutionary perspective, the ancient cats were more suited and well sophisticated for survival. 

For example, the early cats had retractile claws. This feature allowed them to withdraw their claws and prevent breakage, wear or tear. Evolutionarily, most modern cats still retain this feature. 

A retractable claw was crucial for the early cat’s survival. It played a considerable role while hunting their prey. The claw also helped the early cats hold back their prey and defend themselves against predators.

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The early feline ancestors have other remarkable features and behaviors that aided their survival. The modern cats inherited their near-accurate vision, brief hearing, and precise sense of smell from their ancestors. 

The modern cats inherited their stealth movement for their locomotion from their prehistoric ancestors. This allows them to walk on their toes.

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Also, the hind-limbs of the ancient wild cats were much stronger than the forelimbs. They can lift themselves massively to an extraordinary height and mount their prey from a considerable distance. 

However, this feature restricted them from performing other activities. Short forelimbs and longer hind-limbs prevented the ancient cats from running longer distances. Some of these can be seen in modern cats.

Behavior

The ancient felines were mostly anti-social and solitary animals. Apart from lions that live in prides, almost all wildcats in history lived and survived alone. The early feline, as also seen in modern cats, was territorial and very adept at it. 

Most people would notice that their house cats display certain behaviors. This includes rubbing their heads and other parts of their bodies on walls and urinating in different spots. Modern felines inherited this behavior from their ancestors. They did this to release pheromones and mark their territories to warn intruders.

The early wild cats hunted and slept alone. When it's mating period, they set out to satisfy themselves by looking for mates all alone.

Regions and Migration

Several archeological and DNA evidence shows that the ancient cats reproduced massively. The random reproduction technique gave way for their descendants to disperse across different continents and regions.

A 2007 study of feline mitochondrial DNA showed five genetic lineages of the wildcat population. Included in the study were approximately 1000 cats from:

  • Azerbaijan
  • Kazakhstan
  • Mongolia
  • Middle East

These lineages included: 

  • Felis silvestris silvestris (European Wildcat)
  • Felis silvestris bieti (Chinese desert cat)
  • Felis silvestris ornata (Central Asian Wildcat)
  • Felis silvestris cafra (Sub-Saharan African Wildcat)
  • Felis silvestris lybica (Sardinian wildcats)

This study showed that F.s. lybica was the closest ancestors to the house cats (Felis catus). Wild cats from this group are almost similar to domesticated house cats, hence the conclusion.

The Felis silvestris (The Wildcat) originated in former Eurasia and Africa. Archeological evidence has revealed that F.s lybica was the common ancestor to modern house cats. This is due to several discoveries and common features shared by both species.  

The Felis silvestris silvestris (F.s silvestre) were initially thought to be the progenitor of the modern house cats. However, most behavioral evidence suggests that the behaviors displayed by the F.s silvestre were different from those shown by the domesticated cats. 

For example, the F.s silvestri (The European Wildcat) showed some hostility and aggression. This was even though they were raised and nurtured around humans. These subspecies are also highly territorial. They displayed aggressive behaviors towards other cats within their species.

All this evidence solidified F.s lybica as the real progenitor of the modern, domesticated cats we see today.

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The Origin of Domestic Cats

There are lots of theories and evidence that point towards the origin of cat domestication. However, contrary to popular belief, Egyptians were not the first people to domesticate cats. 

Several archeological discoveries and evidence have proven this misconception. In 2004, A crew of archeologists led by Jean-Denis Vigne made a stunning discovery. The team excavated a grave calculated to be around 9,400 - 9500 years old. It was presumed to be from the Neolithic period, in a village once situated in Southern Cyprus.

The grave contained an adult male corpse of unknown age. He was guessed to be from a noble societal hierarchy due to the colorful oblations presented close to the body. 

Most of these offerings were polished stones, seashells, and other precious ornaments. But those were not what made the discovery remarkable. Lying about 16 inches away from the grave was an 8-month Sardinian wild cat. It was resting close to what was presumed to be its master.  

The researchers drew a conclusion that the cat was killed and honored to follow its master to the afterlife. This recent research revealed the first instance of humans keeping domestic cats.

The team of archeologists and their discovery debunked the initial belief that Egyptians were the first to domesticate cats. The evidence revealed in Cyprus showed that humans started domesticating felines as early as 7,500 BC. 

The people of Fertile Crescent (known to be one of the earliest civilizations) were taming wildcats long before the Egyptians adopted the practice about 5,000 years ago.

Cat Ancestors and Ancient Human Culture

Cats represented a lot of symbols in ancient cultures. The Egyptians were the first people recorded who attached a symbol or identity to feline breeding. The significant rise in the adoption of cats was attributed to religious and spiritual beliefs. 

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Cats were domesticated to keep out rodents, snakes, and scorpions. This innate nature to keep out pests made the Egyptians see them as a gift from God. To a point, some cats were seen as deities.

Some of the ancient Egyptian gods symbolized how much they cherished cats. The first Egyptian feline goddess, Mafdet, had the body of a tall, slim, and athletic woman with the braided head of the Felis chaus (the modern sphinx cat). She is known as the god of justice, judgment, and execution. 

The braids are made of snakes and scorpion tails, which plagued most Egyptian households, as noted in history.

The ancient Egyptians didn't just see cats as pets or pest control. It was more serious than that. The ancient Egyptians accepted cats as parts of their families. It even went to the extent that most would endanger their lives to protect their cats. 

They mourned the death of their cats as they would to any family member. They grieved, prayed, and offered sacrifices to honor their departed feline family.

Cats also represented wealth in ancient Egypt. Royal cats were decorated with expensive jewelry, worth more than the wages of most workers combined. They were allowed to roam the palaces and do what they want. Ancient Egyptians respected cats in unimaginable ways.

In the Roman Empire, cats were first adopted as pest control. Later on, they were upgraded to symbolize good luck and sacred beings.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, house cats made their way into Europe through German seaports. As time went on, most house cats ultimately spread across European societies where it sparked a legal and regulated cat trade.

Domestic cats and their ancestors: What changed?

Surprisingly, the physical traits, general habits, and genetic makeup of the modern-day domestic cat have practically remained unchanged compared with their wild cat ancestors. 

To this day, both wild cats and domestic felines share an interest in stalking and playing with their prey. They leap to and from great heights, engage in scent-marking, in which they scratch, rub up against, or urinate in certain spots to mark their territories.

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The dissimilarities between these feline species are not quite noticeable. Most lie in more complex behavioral traits. With the help of DNA mutations, domestic cats can form memories and retain information for up to 10 years (200 times more than domestic dogs). 

Domestic cats also learn and absorb information through fear conditioning and reward-based stimuli. Domestic cats are also more approachable than their wild ancestors. They can tolerate settling with humans or other species.

What are the distinctive features of a domestic cat?

Although nature has been driving the concept of cats' selective breeding throughout history, the first practice of selective breeding emerged around the mid-19th century. Since then, several unique and exotic breeds now exist all over the globe.

Among the earliest cat breeds with the most distinctive features were the:

  • Chartreux: A muscular, double-coated feline of French origin. Short, stubby legs and preferred by farmers due to their excellent hunting ability.
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  • The Turkish Angora: Thick, eggshell-white coat, tapered jaw, and almond-shaped eyes.
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  • The Persian: Distinctively fluffy with a round face, short muzzle, and a long thick coat.
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  • The Siamese: Long, slender limbs, with icy-blue eyes, and a sleek sandy-white coat.
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The widespread popularity of cat shows and genuine interest in felines, as signified by the Crystal Palace cat show in 1871, led to natural and selective cat breeding. Humans started breeding cats based on preferred distinctive features.

Some of these features usually considered were:

  • The Eyes: Cats have large eyes, the largest among mammals in terms of body size ratio. They have a remarkable vision and can see well at night. Most cats don't have eyelashes, and they don't require much light to see objects. They have bulging eyes, which gives them a wider angle of vision when compared to humans. 

Most cats have eye colors that range from greenish-yellow to gold. Some pedigree cats can have eye colors that go from deep green to copper-based. It depends on what the ethical breeder or owner prefers.

  • The Ears: Cats have more sensitive, precise, and accurate hearing than both dogs and humans. This is due to the 32 muscles in each ear. This allows them to rotate their ears around 180 degrees and pinpoint sound signals faster like radar dishes.  
  • The Body: Most house cats have slender bodies with lots of flexible muscles. Cats use about 500 muscles to spring, leap, and jump high places. Its longer hind-limbs and shorter forelimbs also aid this ability. Although as stated earlier, it impedes their ability to sprint long distances.
  • The Paws: Most cats have five toes on each front paw, but four toes on the back paw. This is due to a genetic mutation 8n, a dominant gene that allows for the feature.  The cat’s paws are pressure-sensitive and are usually regarded as the most sensitive part of the cat’s body. From the evolutionary perspective, this feature helped the cat ancestors to detect vibrations from prey during hunting.
  • The Claws: Cats have retractable claws with which they can withdraw or extend instinctively. Cat claws are used as an attachment for climbing and a weapon for hunting.
  • The Nose: Cats have an exceptional sense of smell. This feature is due to millions of sensory cells located in their nose. Cats can smell things beyond the human sense, and this can be traced back to the cat ancestors’ hunting days.
  • The Teeth:  Cats don't chew food. Their teeth are mostly adapted for biting( Canines), tearing (Canines), and cutting (Molars). The only functional parts of the teeth are the molars and canines. Other features are more or less redundant, depriving cats of the ability to chew food properly. Since their cheek teeth never come close when the cat closes its mouth, it's nearly impossible for the cat to grind food.
  • The Coat: The cats' coat is dependent on genetics, breeding, and temperature. Considering genetics, the coat color can be linked to a particular sex chromosome. For example, an X sex chromosome controls the coat color orange and black. If a female cat has the two X chromosomes, it may have a mixture of orange and black coat colors. If a male cat has just one of the X sex chromosomes, it can either have a black or an orange coat color.  

Temperature also affects coat colors. For example, the Siamese cats are usually white at birth but tend to grow darker coats as they grow older. Other breeds in colder climates like the Siberian cat, Maine Coon cats, and the Norwegian Forest cats may possess thicker, insulating, and water repellent coats. 

Some of the domestic cat's distinctive behavioral traits

Cats have some behavioral traits that ensure their survival and adaptation. Some of these traits include:

  • Rubbing of their heads, bodies, and tails on the owner, walls, and furniture. This behavior allows cats to mark their territory. They do this by releasing pheromones and establishing a familiar odor in their environment.
  • Purring has been described by animal behaviorists as an expression of pleasure and contentment.
  • Destroying tiny property. Cats are known to destroy furniture and other property with their claws. They usually do this to keep themselves busy. However, these days, most can be trained to use their claws responsibly.
  •  "Social licking.” This is a welcomed social behavior that occurs when cats lick and groom their owner and fellow cats. It's usually noted as a natural display of warmth, affection, and dependence.
  • "Evening crazies.” This occurs when cats run around aggressively around the house. From an evolutionary sense, house cats do this to instinctively mirror their ancestors who were used to hunting from dusk to dawn.

The Leopard Cat

The leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) was the first domesticated cat in China. The leopard cat entered a commensal relationship with the early Chinese people as far back as 5,500 BC. This was far before the arrival of the wildcats in this region. 

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However, the domestication of the Leopard cats didn't last as long as initially presumed. This is because there's no trace of the Leopard cat in the present Chinese house cats. Similar to all domestic felines, the Chinese house cats still have Felis silvestri as their progenitor.

The Leopard cat shares body size similarities with the domestic cat. However, they possess a more slender body, longer limbs, and webbed toes. Leopard Cats have two dark stripes that run through their eyes to ears and smaller white stripes running from their eyes to nose.

The Leopard cat can be seen in the following places:

  • Far East Russia
  • China
  • Indochina
  • the Indian subcontinent
  • northern Pakistan

Behavior

The Leopard cats are solitary creatures. They fend for themselves alone and usually migrate a little during the mating season. 

They usually hunt smaller animals at night but are equally active during the day. They are very swift climbers and usually rest on trees most times. They mark their territory through head-rubbing, scratching, and spraying their urine around.

Diet

Leopard cats hunt small animals such as rodents, insects, snakes, and lizards. They are active and skilled hunters that pounce on their prey with precision. They barely "play" with food. This is due to the tendency of the prey to escape if they do so.

The Pallas Cats (Manul)

Zoologist Peter Pallas first described the Pallas Cats (Otocolobus manul) in 1776 around lake Baikal. Today, the Pallas cat is widely spread across different regions. This includes Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau, Mongolia, and the Tibetan plateau.

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The Pallas cat is distinct with pale grey furs with pale yellowish ochre. Some of its hair tips are white, and some are black. It has greyer and thicker fur in the winter compared to less grey and less thick fur in the summer. 

Most Pallas cats are solitary creatures. They are not known to be territorial. Nine Pallas cats were observed in captivity, and only two spray-marked their territory with urine. They usually live in caves and burrows to keep themselves warm during winter.

The Pallas cat hunts small animals. They stalk and ambush their prey near their burrows. Sometimes, they pull out their prey from the burrows, especially if it's shallow. Their diets range from rodents, bats, beetles, grasshoppers, birds, and squirrels.

The Flat-headed Cats

The Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) is a small wildcat seen around Borneo and Sumatra. They are currently endangered, according to the IUCN. They are very rare in captivity. Only a few can be seen in Malaysian and Thai zoos, as recorded by conservation firm Species360.

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Features

The Flat-headed cat is quite distinct from the domestic cat. The general feature of the body is slender, and the extremities are delicate and lengthened. The head itself is longer and cylindrical than in the domestic cat. 

There's a noticeable distance between the eyes and the ears. An unusual length of the teeth contrasts the cylindrical form and lateral contraction of the head. The canine teeth are nearly as long as in a domestic cat but twice as large.

The eyes are unusually far forward and close together, compared to other cats. This gives the felid improved stereoscopic vision.  

The teeth are adapted for gripping onto slippery prey, and the jaws are relatively powerful. These features help the flat-headed cat catch and retain aquatic prey, to which it is at least as well adapted as the fishing cat. 

Their legs are fairly short, and their claws are retractable. However, the covering sheaths are so reduced in size that about two-thirds of the claws are left protruding.

Its anterior upper premolars are larger and sharper compared to other cats. The interdigital webs on its paws help the Flat-headed cat move better in muddy environments and water. They are even more pronounced than those on the paws of the fishing cat.

Habitat

Most Flat-headed cats live close to freshwater habitats. They have a habitat range and can move from freshwater habitats to forests depending on environmental conditions.

Behavior

Flat-headed cats are most active at night. They are solitary and mark their territory by spraying urine and sometimes feces.

Diet

Flat-headed cats prefer freshwater animals as food. This adaptation explains their proximity to fresh water. They fish by burying their heads in the water and hunting their prey. They have a feeding strategy of moving their aquatic prey far away from water, to avoid them escaping back to water during feeding. They also feed on chickens, rats, and frogs.

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Summary

Cats have a rich history with humans. About 300 and 600 million domestic cats exist today - a number that includes indoor cats, feral cats, and strays. The International Cat Association recognized about 71 different cat breeds in 2019. However, the actual number might be around hundreds, and it's increasing at a massive rate.

Today, humans are exploiting the unique talents and features of domestic cats. Many cats today are symbols of the entertainment industry. Some are trained for circus shows. Others have become the faces of local, national, and international brands. 

The internet became the real source of cat-related entertainment in the 21st century. Cats were described as the "unofficial mascots of the internet.” As of 2015, there are about 2 million cat videos alone on YouTube. Cats and cat-related topics are also some of the most searched terms on the internet.

Humans went from accepting the ancient wildcats thousands of years ago to building a culture around them today. Cats have become part of every household. The early human tribesmen would have found it hard to believe.

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Joel
Content Contributor
Joel is a writer with a passion for the science of DNA and the power of its manipulation.
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