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Where Do Cats Come From?
Our cats have a large family tree! They are part of the Felidae family, which includes:
- Panthera – cats that roar (lions, tigers, jaguars)
- Acinonyx – cheetahs
- Felis - small cats, like our domestic cats
But have you ever wondered where your gorgeous ball of fur originated from? How did they evolve from their panther-like ancestors, millions of years ago, to the modern domestic cats that we know today?
Let’s take a look at some cat family history!
The three oldest wild cat lineages
The last common ancestor of modern cats was a species called Pseudaelurus that occurred in Asia between 9 and 20 million years ago. Using genetics, scientists have established that modern cats diverged from this ancient species into eight groups or lineages of closely related species.
10.8 million years ago
We can trace the cat family tree back to a panther-like ancestor that was living in Southeast Asia 10.8 million years ago. At this point, the large family tree of ‘roaring’ cats such as lions, tigers and leopards diverged from the lineage.
9.4 million years ago – Bay Cat Lineage – South East Asia
The Bay Cat, which is generally a small forest dweller, was the next lineage to branch off, 9.4 million years ago, and three species evolved within South East Asia.
8.5 million years ago – Caracal Lineage – Africa
8.5 million years ago, the third Caracal lineage diverged during the first ice age when cat ancestors crossed the land bridges at the Red Sea, from Asia to Africa. This family are small to medium sized cats, and includes the Caracal and Serval.
8.0 million years ago – Ocelot Lineage – North America > South America
The ancestors of the Ocelot or Leopardus lineage then evolved into two species in North America. Did you know, this group of cats has a different number of chromosomes to other cats? They have 36 instead of the usual 38.
7.2 million years ago - Lynx Lineage - North America > Eurasia
Relatively shortly afterwards (1.2 million years), the Lynx lineage branched off and evolved into the distinctive lynx species with short tails and tufted ears. Two species spread through North America and a further two evolved later in Eurasia.
6.7 million years ago - Puma Lineage - North America > South America > Asia
The Puma lineage was the third lineage to originate in North America 6.7 million years ago. This is where Cheetahs sit in the cat family tree!
6.2 million years ago - Leopard Cat Lineage - North America > Asia
The penultimate 'youngest' cat lineage arose from ancestors that crossed back to Asia from North America during the second ice age. The Leopard Cat lineage split off 6.2 million years ago.
3.4 million years ago - Felis Lineage - North America > Asia > Europe
The Felis lineage is the most recent lineage to diverge, 3.4 million years ago. These were mainly smaller cats under 10 kgs and they, in turn, gave rise to the domestic cat. Some of the ancestral cats that moved back to Asia (such as the Jungle Cat) evolved there, whilst others spread into Europe and some even further into Africa (such as the African Wildcat - a crucial ancestor for our domestic cat lineage today).
Ancient and modern cat similarities
The domestic cat was classified as Felis catus in 1758, but recent studies suggest that the domestic cat should really be considered as a sub-species of the African Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), and thus Felis sylvestris catus.
African Wildcats are still around today of course! They are viewed as the nearest living representative of the first cats that become our domestic kitties. The two species are different - although you will be able to recognize some similarities between your modern day domestic cat and their ancestors. Just like their ancestors, our domestic cats:
- Have super efficient senses – excellent hearing, sight and smell.
- Are predatory hunters. This is why your beautiful furball loves to bring you gifts, and particularly enjoys playing games that have a dangling toy on the end of a fishing rod.
- Are territorial – in the wild, their territory would have been on the savannah. In a domestic situation, their territory is smaller, normally within an acre or so from your home, for outdoor cats.
- Mark their territory by using scent, pheromones and some visual marks.
- Have pads on their feet which protect their toes and reduce sound as they stalk their prey.
- Are carnivores and require meat in their diet to get all the nutrients they need.
- Males and females look very similar (this is not true in lions, where the male has a large mane, but they are not as close of a relative).
- Genetic analysis shows that the African Wildcat is almost identical to that of our domestic cats.
- Ancient cats spent a lot of the day resting, much like their modern descendants. It’s normal for your cats to rest for 16-20 hours a day, ideally somewhere elevated, where they can watch over their territory.
- Both domestic and ancient cats always preferred to eat and drink in areas away from where they use the toilet, so as not to contaminate their food and water.
- Domestic cats often prefer a fine sandy substrate in their litter box. The African Wildcat used the sand in the savannah to bury their poop and hide it from predators.
12 Interesting facts about the history of cat and human interaction
- Recent evidence shows that domestication probably occurred several thousand years ago in the Middle East, and that cats have lived near humans since early human settlements.
- A rise in the population of rodents around the grain stores in early settlements is thought to have attracted wild cats to get closer to humans.
- This situation helped in the subsequent taming of cats. Ancient humans also appreciated the cats’ help in controlling rodent populations.
- Ancient Egyptians kept cats in their homes to help keep them safe from rodents, snakes and scorpions.
- 2,900 years ago in Egypt, the goddess of love – goddess Bastet – had the head of a cat, and much-loved cats were mummified and entombed with their families.
- There is a grave in Cyprus where a cat was buried with its human 9,500 years ago.
- Li Shou is the cat goddess in Chinese mythology.
- Vikings worshipped Freyja, the fertility goddess, who rode a chariot pulled by 2 cats (who were a gift from Thor).
- Ancient Romans viewed cats as a symbol of liberty.
- It is thought that cats were seen as being affiliated with witches and the devil in the Middle Ages – this created a period where cats were less popular.
- As a result, there were not as many cats around in the Middle Ages to kill off the rats that carried the Bubonic Plague. This is thought to have helped the plague spread.
- When it comes to sailing, historically humans took cats with them on ships to control any rodents on board. It is thought this may be how cats were introduced to different continents.
The modern day
General opinions about cats began to improve in the 15th century after their Middle Age unpopularity. Now, in the US alone, it is estimated that 45.3 million families have adopted a cat, and many cats have their own social media profiles! There are also many movies that feature our beloved cats.
Since domestication, cats have not undergone any major evolutionary changes. They often still love to be independent, and perhaps this is why they can sometimes find living in our fast-changing modern homes challenging.
You can help your feline friend feel more calm and serene in the modern home by using FELIWAY Optimum. This will not only help them feel more calm and serene, it will help prevent scratching, urine spraying, tension and help them adapt to any changes around the home.