The discovery of 7,000-year-old wildcat remains in Polish caves sheds new light on the evolution of felids.
When neolithic farmers set off from the Fertile Crescent about 7,000 years ago, they brought with them new pets – goats, sheep, cattle and dogs. But they probably didn’t realize they had a stowaway. Along with domestic animals, a wildcat from the Middle East also appeared in Europe.
When, about 6,000 years ago, migrants arrived in Poland, they began to transform forests into pastures and arable fields, and wildcats – the ancestors of domestic cats – settled quickly. Such conclusions were drawn from new research in which the first known remains of Middle Eastern wildcat skeletons were found in four Polish caves near early agricultural settlements.
– It was very unexpected. We discovered a cat humeral bone hidden in the layer of sediments with ceramic vessels – said Dr. Magdalena Krajcarz, archaeologist at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, head of the scientific team.
Neolithic people occasionally visited the caves, and the presence of the cat suggests that it was comfortable for him to live next to, if not with, the people. It was an important step on the path to full domestication of these animals.
All modern domestic cats are descendants of a Middle Eastern wildcat that was domesticated in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago. The discovery of wildcat remains in Europe could shed new light on the history of these animals.
Scientists have found in the same caves the bones of four European wildcats – native relatives of Middle Eastern wildcats. This means that wildcats from the Middle East must have met distant relatives when they arrived at their new home. Both species had their last common ancestor about 200,000 years ago.
It is not known whether European wildcats competed for food with Middle Eastern wildcats or were hybridized. If that were the case, it would mean that our cats have a much more complex evolutionary past than we had imagined.