Earliest Cat Domesticated in China Was the Leopard Cat, Scientists Say

Modern Old World distribution of the different wild cat subspecies (Felis silvestris) and the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), and location of the three Middle-Late Neolithic sites of the Shaanxi and Henan Provinces (China) analysed in this paper:(Vigne et al/PLOS One]. Click map to enlarge it.

The wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) is the common ancestor of the 500 million domestic cats (Felis catus) in the world today. It became domesticated in Africa and the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago, about the time that humans started farming and storing grain, which in turn created a proliferation of rodents and a steady supply of prey for cats.

But according to new research, published in the science journal PLOS ONE on January 22, the wildcat was not the only species of cat to be domesticated. Analysis of ancient bones shows that in China a different species, the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), settled down independently with humans some 5,000 years ago, before the domesticated wildcat arrived in the region.

Domestic cats in China today, however, are descended from the wildcat, like everywhere else. The domesticated version of the leopard cat did not persist across the millennia, although the leopard cat was again domesticated in the 1960s, producing, by hybridization with domestic cats from the silvestris species, a cat breed known as the Bengal breed, according to a news release about this research published by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research), a public organization under the responsibility of the French Ministry of Education and Research.

Illustration of Javan leopard cat from Richard Lydekker’s “A hand-book to the Carnivora”, 1896.

The discovery of the earliest form of cat domestication in China was made by CNRS scientists trying to determine if cats became domesticated independently in China, or whether domesticated cats were introduced to China along trading routes from the west.

Analysis of small bones found in the remains of several agricultural settlements in China from 5,000 years ago found the answer: the earliest known domesticated cats in China were those of the leopard cat, which is —> Read More