Long before Fluffy was scratching that post in the middle of your living-room, cats were sailing with Vikings to the New World. Now, 37 percent of homes in the US have cats, yet thousands of years ago, cats were living aboard Scandinavian ships, where they performed the essential task of killing rodents.
A recent study of ancient cat DNA found that felines were domesticated in the Near East and Egypt approximately 15,000 years ago, before heading westward. The study, presented at the International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, UK in 2016, sequenced DNA from 209 cats that roamed the Earth 15,000 and 3,700 years ago.
The cats, which were found at over 30 archaeological sites in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, have helped researchers create a historical timeline for the bundles of fur we now share our homes with.
"We don't know the history of ancient cats. We do not know their origin, we don't know how their dispersal occurred," Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist from the Institut Jacques Monod in France, told Ewen Callaway at Nature.
The study analyzed the DNA of felines found in ancient Egyptian tombs, burial sites in Cyprus, and an old Viking village in Germany, finding that cats probably expanded geographically twice during their early years.
The first wave may be referenced in the mitochondrial DNA, genetic information passed down by mothers. The mitochondrial DNA found that cats from the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean shared a similar mitochondrial lineage. This indicates that cats spread initially through agricultural areas, where they were drawn to rodents that fed on grains. Farmers likely welcomed the cats to control the rat and mice populations.
A separate mitochondrial lineage seems to exist between felines descended from Egyptian cats to those in Eurasia and Africa.
"A mitochondrial lineage common in Egyptian cat mummies from the end of the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD was also carried by cats in Bulgaria, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time," Callaway noted.
The second wave seems to arise with the ancient mariners - farmers, sailors, and Vikings - who brought cats aboard their ships to tackle rodent infestation. Cat remains found at a Viking site in northern Germany and dated to between the 8th and 11th century AD, shares this mitochondrial DNA connection.
"I didn't even know there were Viking cats," Pontus Skoglund, a population geneticist from Harvard Medical School, told Nature.
The study’s findings are in the early stages, meaning that more historical information regarding cats could be forthcoming. In the meantime, feel free to buy Tabby a Viking helmet as a symbol of his heritage.