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Cat-Human Bond May Go Back More Than 5,000 Years

Researchers detect a mutually beneficial relationship
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Radiocarbon dating identified the cats as having lived about 5,300 years ago -- 3,000 years before the earliest domestic cats previously identified in China.

The researchers also subjected human, cat, and rodent bones to sophisticated isotope analyses, which indicated the three had similar eating patterns. All three had consumed "substantial" amounts of millet-based foods. This suggests the cats were devouring animals that lived on millet.

Also, one of the cats was found to have taken in more millet-based food, and less meat, than would have been expected. This pointed either to feline scavenging behavior or feeding of the cats by local residents, the authors surmised.

The team also described supporting archeological evidence -- ceramic storage containers for millet, which suggested that human residents at the time had been coping with a rodent threat.

"Later, they are gradually domesticated as pets, I suppose," said study author Yaowu Hu, of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

The next step, said Marshall, is to conduct an in-depth DNA analysis to precisely categorize the identity of the cats found in Quanhucun. That work, she said, is already slated to begin but without her involvement.

Cat lovers are taking the findings in stride. The non-profit Cat Fanciers Association of Alliance, Ohio, thinks the feline domestication process is not yet a done deal.

"Domestication of cats is an extremely gradual and ongoing evolutionary process," said Joan Miller, chair of outreach and education for the association. Naturally cautious and independent by nature, "cats, as a species, have the least likelihood of being domesticated by humans," Miller said. And their ability to hear, smell and see at night far exceeds that of humans, she added.

"They only will do what brings them reward, and cannot be trained to pull things, herd animals, or to perform work for humans," Miller said.

"It is probable cats themselves chose domestication," Miller said, "and that we are actually seeing this process continuing today."

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