The ancestors of modern cats followed early farmers to Europe, but were not pets, according to a recent study. Nitrogen isotope ratios in the bones of six cats from Neolithic Poland suggest that these old cats hunted rodents that ate human farm fruits, but they did not eat quite like the locals and their trusted domestic dogs. In other words, the cats lived a lifestyle similar to that of modern coyotes.
Cats lived near But not people With she
All modern cats are based on wild cats from the Middle East. In fact, it̵
4,200 to 2,300 years ago, a population of early farmers from Central Asia moved to Europe, where they interacted with the hunters and gatherers already living there. Some wild cats came along; Archaeologists found wildcat skeletons from the Middle East in Poland from around the same time. Archaeologist Magdalena Krajcarz from Nicolaus Copernicus University and her colleagues say that the cats weren’t really traveling With the humans – they just followed their prey. (This argument sounds a bit like it was written by a cat.)
Krajcarz and her colleagues examined the chemical composition of bones from six Middle Eastern wildcats found in southern Poland. When nutrients enter the food chain, nitrogen-15 tends to be passed on more than the other stable nitrogen isotope (nitrogen-14), so the relationship between them may indicate what an animal has eaten. Domestic plants are usually also rich in nitrogen-15 because they are added in the form of manure, which is used as a fertilizer. A high percentage of nitrogen-15 can therefore also indicate a diet that is rich in native plants – or in meat from animals that have eaten these crops.
The Middle Eastern cats had a fairly high nitrogen-15 content. It is more important, however, that the values of the cats correspond exactly to the nitrogen-15 values in the bones of local rodents that eat plants. It was the molecular version of a smoking weapon, suggesting that about 75 to 95 percent of the cat’s card consisted of rodents feeding on farmer cultures and groceries.
On the farm
When Krajcarz and her colleagues compared cats to old people and domestic dogs from nearby settlements like Bronocice, they found that people and their dogs had an even higher nitrogen-15 content than cats. This suggests that people lived almost exclusively on agricultural crops and shared their food with their dog companions.
Cats, on the other hand, seem to have lived near settlements and took advantage of some of the things that come with having people as neighbors, such as access to many well-fed mice. Their somewhat lower – but still high – nitrogen-15 values indicate that they lived mainly from pests, but also hunted other types of prey.
Ecologists call this lifestyle synanthropy, and today you can see it in modern urban foxes, coyotes, raccoons and crows. For cats, synanthropy was a step on the path to domestication – on their terms, of course. The earliest cat remains found in human settlements date back to Roman times in Poland 3,000 years later, and their nitrogen-15 content is much closer to humans and dogs.
When the first wildcats from the Middle East followed the farmers to Europe, they split an ecological niche with the European wildcats already living there. The European wildcat bones that Krajcarz and her colleagues examined had a nitrogen-15 content similar to that of Middle Eastern cats, but were spread over a larger area. This suggests that Middle Eastern cats mainly hunted pests, while European cats only included nail-eating rodents in their local menus. Perhaps this partially explains why cats from the Middle East, but not from Europe, were ultimately domesticated.
Paws to think about
All six Middle Eastern cats that Krajcarz and her colleagues looked at came from caves in the hills overlooking the fertile lowlands where humans were farming. They seem to have ended up in the caves, either because they lived and died there or because larger predators brought them home as a snack. The people lived in the highlands, in smaller and sparser groups than the agricultural settlements in the valley. But there is no evidence that they buried the cats.
These caves were 30 km to 45 km from the nearby large agricultural settlements in the valley. That suggests something about the range of these six cats, but there is a lot that tells us nothing. Archaeologists have not found cat bones in any of the Neolithic settlements in Poland, so there is still no evidence as to whether cats lived and hunted even closer to people or whether some actually lived in human houses or in food storage structures.
PNAS, 2020 DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.1918884117 (About DOIs).