As my skull of the month is the domestic cat for June I thought I would start in the obvious place – Egypt. I was actually searching for information about cat domestication and unsurprisingly an article using mummified cats came up. The article itself does not focus on the domestication side but rather the attempt to identify the species of cats species that were used for mummification and present were Egyptian tombs.
As cats species have a high degree of variation regarding their overall body size it is difficult to identify the species of a cat who has been mummified. This study by Kurushima et al. (2008) attempts to use genetic methods to aid with identification, as well as exploring the genetic relationship between modern domestic cats and Egyptian cats. In order to do this samples of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) were taken from three cat mummies. These were compared to modern wildcat species which had been obtained from a previous study (Lipinski et al. 2008).
It was found that all three mummies possessed mitotypes (mitochondrial haplotypes i.e. alleles which are transmitted together) which were closely related. These mitotypes are still present in modern Egyptian cats which are rare in the US and Western Europe. They are, however, common in the Middle East and Egypt and therefore indicates that modern Egyptian cats are descended from local ancient populations. Pretty interesting stuff and means that the local cat population in modern Egypt can trace their genealogy back to the time of the Pharaohs!
Another achievement of this study was that this was the first successful amplification of DNA from cat mummies from Egypt. Hopefully more recent studies in this area will have used more advances and improved techniques to take this study further. I plan to look into cat domestication a bit further in time and therefore might find something.
This article did not only provide me with a first look at cats in Egyptian times but also an introduction into cat domestication. It is suggested that cat domestication may have come from Egypt as they have been featured and present in this culture that dates back to 4,000 B.C. This date related to skeletal remains of cats which have been found in tombs. There have also been references to cats in text and images back to c. 2,000 B.C. and some which relate to domestication. However, even earlier remains of a wildcard were found associated with human remains in Cyprus 9510 years ago and are also supported by genetic studies which indicate the Near East as a possibility for cat domestication. As I said I want to do a bit more research into this area so maybe some clearer, and more recent, evidence may surface.
Kurushima, J. D., S. Ikram, et al. (2012). “Cats of the pharaohs: genetic comparison of Egyptian cat mummies to their feline contemporaries.” Journal of Archaeological Science 39(10): 3217-3223.
Lipinski, M.J., Froenicke, L., Baysac, K.C., Billings, N.C., Leutenegger, C.M., Levy, A.M., Longeri, M., Niini, T., Ozpinar, H., Slater, M.R., Pedersen, N.C., Lyons, L.A., 2008. The ascent of cat breeds: genetic evaluations of breeds and worldwide randombred populations. Genomics 91, 12-21.