Farmers in China domesticated Asian Leopard Cats 5,000 Years Ago

Farmers in China domesticated Asian Leopard Cats 5,000 Years Ago

Farmers in China may have domesticated Asian leopard cats during the Neolithic era, more than 5,000 years ago. This is a different species than the only living type of domestic cat today, the Felis catus that so many people keep as pets.

In modern China, people now keep Felis catus , not the leopard cat ( P. bengalensis ) that farmers domesticated so long ago, says a press release from the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. (The small Asian leopard cat should not be confused with the clouded leopard, a much larger big cat in Asia). The one species of domestic cat in the world today, descended from a wildcat in Africa and the Near East, later replaced the domesticated leopard cat in China, the researchers said.

A group of French, British and Chinese researchers did the new study that identified cat bones dating from around 3500 BC discovered in agricultural settlements in Shaanxi Province in 2001.

“All the bones belong to the leopard cat, a distant relation of the western wildcat, from which all modern domestic cats are descended,” the press release states. “The scientists have thus provided evidence that cats began to be domesticated in China earlier than 3000 BC. This scenario is comparable to that which took place in the Near East and Egypt, where a relationship between humans and cats developed following the birth of agriculture.”

A domestic cat skull from the Neolithic site of Wuzhuangguoliang in Shaanxi Province, from 3200-2800 BC. (© J.-D. Vigne, CNRS/MNHN)

When researchers with the Chinese Academy of Sciences found ancient cat bones in human settlements in Shanxii and Henan, they asked if they were evidence of a relationship between small Chinese cats and humans in the 4 th millennium BC or if they were the first domestic cats arriving from the Near East.

The DNA had degraded so that it was not possible to identify the species that way, so they looked at the mandibles. Small-cat bone structures are very similar and cannot be differentiated using conventional techniques. The researchers used a process called geometric morphometric analysis on five cat mandibles that were 4,900 to 5,500 years old.

“Their work clearly determined that the bones all belonged to the leopard cat ( Prionailurus bengalensis ). Still very widespread in Eastern Asia today, this wildcat, which is a distant relation of the western wildcat ( Felis silvestris lybica ), is well-known for its propensity to frequent areas with a strong human presence. Just as in the Near East and Egypt, leopard cats were probably attracted into Chinese settlements by the proliferation of rodents who took advantage of grain stores,” the press release states.

Scientists used rice grains to measure the cranial capacity of domesticated Asian leopard cats. Today there is only one species of house cat, descended from wildcats in the Near East and Africa. Vigne, CNRS/MNHN)

It is now known that cat domestication happened in at least three parts of the world—Egypt, the Near East and China around the time agriculture arose.

Today, there are more house cats than any other domesticated animal in the world. Experts estimate there are more than 500 million domestic cats worldwide. A study published in 2004 traces the close relation between humans and cats to the Near East about 9000 to 7000 BC, after agriculture was first practiced, the press release says.

The press release asks whether the western domestic cats that replaced the leopard cat after the end of the New Stone Age arrived “in China with the opening of the Silk Road, when the Roman and Han empires began to establish tenuous links between East and West? This is the next question that needs to be answered.”

China Cat? Ancient Chinese May Have Domesticated Felines

Ancient Chinese villagers may have palled around with felines, according to a new study that finds possible evidence of domesticated cats 5,300 years ago in a Yangshao village.

The earliest evidence of cat domestication comes from ancient Egypt, where paintings show kitties getting special treatment. As the sacred animal of the goddess Bast, Egyptian cats were even honored with mummification.

Before that, the first evidence of cats and humans interacting is a 9,500-year-old burial on the island of Cyprus, where a wildcat and a person were interred side-by-side. Most of what happened between that burial and the domestication of cats in ancient Egypt remains a mystery. [Here, Kitty, Kitty: 10 Surprising Facts About Cats]

"Despite cats being so beloved as pets, it is surprising how little has been known about their domestication," said study researcher Fiona Marshall, a zooarchaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis.

Chinese cats

Domesticated cats were thought to have landed in China only about 2,000 years ago, after the Egyptians exported them to Greece and the felines spread throughout Europe. But new research throws doubt on that theory.

The excavation of two ancient refuse pits in the remnants of a Chinese village called Quanhucun in 1997 turned up eight cat bones from at least two separate individuals. Quanhucun was part of the Yangshao culture, a well-studied Neolithic culture in China.

The Yangshao people farmed, made pottery, and lived together in long-lasting villages.

The bones found include five leg bones, two pelvic bones and one left jawbone. There are two left tibia bones, a find that establishes at least two separate cats were buried there but because the bones were found at multiple sites, there may have been more. A new analysis of the cat bones, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals the kitties lived about 5,300 years ago, give or take 200 years (The different cats in the sample likely lived decades or centuries apart.) This date makes the remains far older than any known human-associated cat in China.

Whether or not these cats were domesticated is a trickier question to answer. Some evidence points to yes: The bones are smaller than European wildcats and are more comparable in size to European domesticated cats, said Yaowu Hu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who led the study.

"However, due to the lack of the modern wildcat and domestic cats data, we cannot define them as wild or domesticated just based on the biometric data," Hu told LiveScience.

Domestication location

The strongest evidence in favor of domestication, Hu said, comes from the cats' diets. Researchers use molecular variants called isotopes to determine what animals used to eat &mdash the molecules in their diets became the building blocks of their bones. An isotope analysis of both human and animal remains at the village revealed that people ate a diet heavy in the grain millet.

Rodents also ate a millet-heavy diet, the researchers found. Cats then ate the rodents, creating a food web that benefited not only the felines, but also the farmers trying to protect their food stores from pets.

"It was suspected that cat domestication worked this way," Marshall told LiveScience. "But before this study, there was never any scientific information or proof that it worked that way in the ancient past."

One cat in particular had an unusual diet profile for a meat-eater. Instead of showing high levels of a nitrogen isotope associated with a carnivorous diet, this cat ate a lot of agricultural products.

"These data are intriguing, raising the possibility that this cat was unable to hunt and scavenged for discarded human food or that it was looked after and fed by people," the researchers wrote.

The research can't, however, explain the spread of domesticated cats. It's possible, Hu said, the Chinese cats were part of the same lineage as the kitties domesticated in Egypt. Or they could have been domesticated in China independently. To solve the mystery, Marshall said, "future work on ancient DNA will be necessary."

New research suggests that cats domesticated themselves 2,000 years ago

There are thought to be about 500 million domestic cats worldwide. For the longest time, researchers and biologists believed that cats descended from a form of wildcat that was native to North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

However, there has been new research that suggests that the earliest domesticated cats in China lived with humans almost 5,000 years ago. By studying the bones of one of the Chinese cats, researchers gather that it must have been a relative to the Asian leopard cat.

Researchers and biologists always thought that domesticated cats were transported from Asia to Egypt and the Mediterranean during those years. However, the new studies suggest that the “taming” of cats had taken place in two different parts of the world with two different cat species.

The cat bones researchers used for the study were found in archaeological excavations in 2001 from a site of ancient agricultural settlements in Shaanxi, Northern China. After they were tested, they were found to have lived about 3,000 to 3,500 years BC.

In order to determine from which species the cats originated, scientists did a geometric morphometric analysis.

Just as in the Near East and Egypt, the leopard cats were most likely coaxed into Chinese settlements by the rodents, that ate the people’s grains they had stored.

During the Neolithic age at one point it seems that the western cat had replaced the leopard cat. This goes hand-in-hand with the time when the Silk Road route opened up, making it easier to trade and import the cats. Shaanxi’s ancient capital, Xi’an was the starting point for the Silk Road. The establishment of the Silk Road was actually the start of the Roman and Han empires.

The researchers that are doing the study are experts from The French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the French Natural History Museum (MNHN), the University of Aberdeen, the Chinese Academy of Social Science, and the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology.

Since there are no ancient DNA samples from the remains found, the only way to differentiate the small cat bones is through the geometric morphometric analysis. The tests show similar shapes with differences that are imperceptible by using conventional techniques.

The scientists at the institutions had analyzed mandibles of five cats from Shaanxi and Henan dating from 3,500 to 2,900 BC.

All the bones that were studied belonged to the leopard cat, which is a cat similar to the size of a modern domestic, but with longer legs and smaller head. There are still wild species living across the majority of Asia.

The wildcat, which happens to be a distant relative of the western wildcat, is known for its propensity to frequent areas with a lot of humans. The researchers were able to determine that the cats and humans began living together once agriculture developed. That is most likely because cats served a great use by catching all of the rodents eating the crops.

This discovery mirrors the pattern that was recorded in the west. The domestication started around 9,000 to 11,000 years ago. Up until this recent discovery, archaeologists had believed that cats were domesticated in ancient Egypt around 2310 BC and 1950 BC. However, remains of kittens that were found in 2014 dated back to almost 2,000 years.

This caused researchers to question whether or not the domesticated cats spread outwards from Egypt or if the animals in China had developed the same kinds of interests in the human settlements. However, the recent findings show that the domestication took place independently, which means the animals would not have been brought in from Europe.

Did you know that cats in China are still used frequently as hunters, catching mice that are eating farmers’ crops? If you go to a Chinese restaurant or to China itself, you will notice a cat figurine with a waving hand. It is called “Lucky Cat” and is considered a token of hope for bringing in new customers. The Chinese revolutionary leader, Mao Zedong, would be known as Chairman Cat, if it was translated to English. If you look closely, the first name, Mao, kind of sounds like miaow, or meow.


A leopard cat is about the size of a domestic cat, but more slender, with longer legs and well-defined webs between its toes. Its small head is marked with two prominent dark stripes and a short and narrow white muzzle. There are two dark stripes running from the eyes to the ears and smaller white streaks running from the eyes to the nose. The backs of its moderately long and rounded ears are black with central white spots. Body and limbs are marked with black spots of varying size and colour, and along its back are two to four rows of elongated spots. The tail is about half the size of its head-body length and is spotted with a few indistinct rings near the black tip. The background colour of the spotted fur is tawny, with a white chest and belly. However, in their huge range, they vary so much in colouration and size of spots as well as in body size and weight that initially they were thought to be several different species. The fur colour is yellowish brown in the southern populations, but pale silver-grey in the northern ones. The black markings may be spotted, rosetted, or may even form dotted streaks, depending on subspecies. In the tropics, leopard cats weigh 0.55–3.8 kg (1.2–8.4 lb), have head-body lengths of 38.8–66 cm (15.3–26.0 in), with long 17.2–31 cm (6.8–12.2 in) tails. In northern China and Siberia, they weigh up to 7.1 kg (16 lb), and have head-body lengths of up to 75 cm (30 in) generally, they put on weight before winter and become thinner until spring. [5] Shoulder height is about 41 cm (16 in). [ citation needed ]

Felis bengalensis was the scientific name proposed by Robert Kerr in 1792 for a leopard cat from Bengal. [6] In the subsequent decades, 20 more leopard cat specimens were described and named, including: [7]

  • Felis nipalensis (Horsfield & Vigors, 1829) from Nepal
  • Felis chinensis (Gray, 1837) from Canton Province, China
  • Leopardus ellioti (Gray, 1842) from the area of Bombay Presidency
  • Felis horsfieldi (Gray, 1842) from Bhutan
  • Felis wagati (Gray, 1867) and Felis tenasserimensis (Gray, 1867) from Tenasserim
  • Felis microtis (Milne-Edwards, 1872) from the Peking area and also from Tsushima Island. [8]
  • Felis euptilura (Elliot, 1871) based on two skins from Siberia. One was depicted in Gustav Radde's illustration cum description of a wild cat the other was part of a collection at the Regent's Park Zoo. The ground colour of both was light brownish-yellow, strongly mixed with grey and covered with reddish-brown spots, head grey with a dark-red stripe across the cheek. [9] The initial binomial euptilura given by Elliott has been incorrectly changed to "euptilurus" by some later authors, but under the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature Article 31.2.1, nouns and noun phrases are not subject to gender agreement at present, both terms appear in use, but only the spelling "euptilura" is correct. [10]
  • Felis manchurica (Mori, 1922) from the vicinity of Mukden in Manchuria was a light grey spotted skin. [11]

In 1939, Reginald Innes Pocock subordinated them to the genus Prionailurus. The collection of the Natural History Museum, London comprised several skulls and large numbers of skins of leopard cats from various regions. Based on this broad variety of skins, he proposed to differentiate between a southern subspecies P. bengalensis bengalensis from warmer latitudes to the west and east of the Bay of Bengal, and a northern P. bengalensis horsfieldi from the Himalayas, having a fuller winter coat than the southern. His description of leopard cats from the areas of Gilgit and Karachi under the trinomen Prionailurus bengalensis trevelyani is based on seven skins that had longer, paler and more greyish fur than those from the Himalayas. He assumed that trevelyani inhabits more rocky, less forested habitats than bengalensis and horsfieldi. [12]

Two more subspecies were proposed and described:

  • P. b. alleni (Sody, 1949) from Hainan Island [13]P. b. iriomotensis (Imaizumi, 1967) from the island of Iriomote, one of the Ryukyu Islands in the Japanese Archipelago [14] Initially, the Iriomote cat was recognised as a distinct species, but following mtDNA analysis in the 1990s was considered a leopard cat subspecies. [15]

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Russian zoologists Geptner, Gromov and Baranova disagreed with this classification. They emphasized the differences of skins and skulls at their disposal and the ones originating in Southeast Asia, and coined the term Amur forest cat, which they regarded as a distinct species. [16] [17] In 1987, Chinese zoologists pointed out the affinity of leopard cats from northern China, Amur cats and leopard cats from southern latitudes. In view of the morphological similarities they did not support classifying the Amur cat as a species. [18]

Molecular analysis of 39 leopard cat tissue samples clearly showed three clades: a northern lineage and southern lineages 1 and 2. The northern lineage comprises leopard cats from Tsushima Islands, the Korean Peninsula, the continental Far East, Taiwan, and Iriomote Island. Southern lineage 1, comprising Southeast Asian populations, showed higher genetic diversity. Southern lineage 2 is genetically distant from the other lineages. [19]

Following a revision of Felidae taxonomy in 2017, two leopard cat species are now recognised, based on molecular analyses, morphological differences, and biogeographic separation: [2]

  • the mainland leopard cat (P. bengalensis) is widely distributed on mainland Asia, from Pakistan to Southeast Asia, China, and the Russian Far East.
  • the Sunda leopard cat (P. javanensis) is native to Java, Bali, Borneo, Sumatra, Palawan, Negros, Cebu, Panay, and possibly the Malay Peninsula.

Two mainland leopard cat subspecies are currently recognised: [2]

  • P. b. bengalensis (Kerr, 1792) ranges in South and East Asia, from Pakistan to China, and probably the Malay Peninsula and
  • P. b. euptilura (Elliott, 1871) is native to the Russian Far East, Manchuria, Korea, Taiwan, Iriomote and Tsushima Islands.

Phylogeny Edit

Phylogenetic analysis of the nuclear DNA in tissue samples from all Felidae species revealed that the evolutionary radiation of the Felidae began in Asia in the Miocene around 14.45 to 8.38 million years ago . [20] [21] Analysis of mitochondrial DNA of all Felidae species indicates a radiation at around 16.76 to 6.46 million years ago . [22]

The Prionailurus species are estimated to have had a common ancestor between 8.16 to 4.53 million years ago , [20] and 8.76 to 0.73 million years ago . [22] Both models agree in the rusty-spotted cat (P. rubiginosus) having been the first cat of this evolutionary lineage that genetically diverged, followed by the flat-headed cat (P. planiceps) and then the fishing cat (P. viverrinus). [20] [22] It is estimated to have diverged together with the leopard cat between 4.31 to 1.74 million years ago [20] and 4.25 to 0.02 million years ago . [22]

The following cladogram shows the phylogenetic relationships of the leopard cat as derived through analysis of nuclear DNA: [20] [21]

Cat History and Archaeology

The oldest archaeological evidence for cats living with humans is from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where several animal species including cats were introduced by 7500 B.C. The earliest known purposeful cat burial is at the Neolithic site of Shillourokambos. This burial was of a cat buried next to a human between 9500-9200 years ago. The archaeological deposits of Shillourokambos also included the sculpted head of what looks like a combined human-cat being.

There are a few ceramic figurines found in the 6th millennium B.C. site of Haçilar, Turkey, in the shape of women carrying cats or catlike figures in their arms, but there is some debate about the identification of these creatures as cats. The first unquestioned evidence of cats smaller in size than the wildcat is from Tell Sheikh Hassan al Rai, an Uruk period (5500-5000 calendar years ago [cal BP]) Mesopotamian site in Lebanon.

Photos with Leopard Cat

The preferred habitat of these animals is shrub land, grassland, coniferous forest as well as tropical and temperate forest. The natural range of Leopard cats is South and East Asia. The species is distributed across vast territory, stretching southwards from the Amur region in the Russian Far East to China, south-east to the Korean Peninsula and south-west to Indochina, reaching the Philippines and the Sunda islands of Indonesia then westwards, to the Indian Subcontinent and northern Pakistan.

Legal Restrictions

In New York City and the state of Hawaii, Bengal cats are prohibited by law (as are all other hybrids of domestic and wild cat species).

There are no limits of ownership in:

Bengals of the F1-F4 generations are regulated in:

  • New York state
  • Georgia
  • Massachusetts
  • Delaware
  • Connecticut
  • Indiana
  • and banned outright in Australia.

In the United States, except where noted above, Bengal cats with a generation of F5 and beyond are considered domestic and are generally legal.

The Sheep

Sheep were among the earliest animals to be domesticated by humans. The first sheep likely were tamed from wild mouflon in Mesopotamia, today's Iraq, some 11,000 to 13,000 years ago. Early sheep were used for meat, milk, and leather wooly sheep only appeared around 8,000 years ago in Persia (Iran). Sheep soon became very important to people in Middle Eastern cultures from Babylon to Sumer to Israel the Bible and other ancient texts make many references to sheep and shepherds.


AsianScientist (Dec. 27, 2013) – 5,000 years ago, cats lived alongside farmers in the ancient Chinese village of Quanhucun, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has confirmed.

“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,” said study co-author Fiona Marshall, a professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

The study, led by researchers in China and the US, provides the first direct evidence for the processes of cat domestication.

“Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats,” said Marshall. “Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits.”

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, including the discovery of a wild cat buried with a human nearly 10,000 years ago in Cyprus. While it often has been argued that cats were attracted to rodents and other food in early farming villages and domesticated themselves, there has been little evidence for this theory.

Led by Yaowu Hu and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers in China analyzed eight bones from at least two cats excavated from a site near Quanhucun.

Using radiocarbon dating and isotopic analyses of carbon and nitrogen traces, the research team demonstrated that the rodents, domestic dogs and pigs from the ancient village were eating millet, but deer were not. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes show that cats were preying on animals that lived on farmed millet, probably rodents. At the same time, an ancient rodent burrow into a storage pit and the rodent-proof design of grain storage pots indicate that farmers had problems with rodents in the grain stores.

Other clues gleaned from the Quanhucun food web suggest the relationship between cats and humans had begun to grow closer. One of the cats was aged, showing that it survived well in the village. Another ate fewer animals and more millet than expected, suggesting that it scavenged human food or was fed.

Recent DNA studies suggest that most of the estimated 600 million domestic cats now living around the globe are descendants most directly of the Near Eastern Wildcat, one of the five Felis sylvestris lybica wildcat subspecies still found around the Old World.

Marshall, an expert on animal domestication, said there currently is no DNA evidence to show whether the cats found at Quanhucun are descendants of the Near Eastern Wildcat, a subspecies not native to the area. If the Quanhucun cats turn out to be close descendants of the Near Eastern strain, it would suggest they were domesticated elsewhere and later introduced to the region.

“We do not yet know whether these cats came to China from the Near East, whether they interbred with Chinese wild-cat species, or even whether cats from China played a previously unsuspected role in domestication,” said Marshall.

Source: Chinese Academy of Sciences
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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