Mister Fusterbuster Fluffykins might sit on his majestic butt all day, basking in whatever sunbeams you have made available to suit his needs, but his ancestors traveled quite a distance so he could wake you at 6 a.m, yowling for Fancy Feast.
Science still has numerous questions about just how cats were domesticated, and in fact there’s debate over just how domesticated they are. (If you have a cat, you probably have some reservations.) Nature reports on an ambitious study, led by Eva-Maria Geigl of the Institut Jacques Monod, who explained: “We don’t know the history of ancient cats. We do not know their origin, we don’t know how their dispersal occurred.”
Her team took a crack at tracing that history, sequencing the DNA of 209 cats—from as far back as 15,000 years and as recent as the 18th century. The Verge lays out what they found:
Agriculture was a catalyst for cat populations, the study’s authors say, because the need to store grain and other crops drew nearby rodents — rodents that in turn became food for wily felines. Ancient humans presumably appreciated that these new arrivals were helping keep their stores free from infestation, and as a bonus, were super cute. A second population explosion appeared to coincide with the advent of boat travel, where a ship’s cat could keep vital food stores safe from rats and mice that stowed away on board. Perhaps the most exciting part of the study is the mention that a cat was discovered in a thousand-year-old Viking burial site, conjuring up the image of horn-hatted kitties sailing the ocean on longboats.
Really the important takeaway here is Viking cats. “I didn’t even know there were Viking cats,” Harvard Medical School population geneticist Pontus Skoglund told Nature. Another fun fact: Tabbies didn’t exist until the Middle Ages.
And now they stride the innermost corridors of human government power! How far they’ve come.