Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Evidence of Cat Domestication in Ancient Peru

This is way cool.  The domestication of cats occurred on opposite sides of the world. I hadn't thought about it!  I suppose if asked, I would have said that since dogs came with man to the New World, cats would have too.  But perhaps that wasn't so --

Ancient Lambayeque civilizations domesticated cats 3500 years ago
November 24, 2010

Recent finds at the Ventarrón archaeological site have revealed some of the oldest examples of ancient Peruvian domestication of animals.

The Ventarrón site, belonging to one of the oldest civilizations in the Americas, has already given up a number of amazing discoveries. This latest gives us a look at early animal domestication

Work at the site, under the leadership of Ignacio Alva, son of famous Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva, has revealed a huge collection of animal bones, mostly felines from the Peruvian Amazon on the other side of the Andes mountains.

With such a large number of bones, the archaeologists enlisted the help of zoologists Victor Vásquez and Teresa Rosales from the Centro de Investigaciones Arqueobiológicas y Paleoecológicas Andinas Arqueobios de Trujillo (Center of Andean Archaeobiological and Paleoecological Investigation of Trujillo).

The combined group of investigators have concluded that the ancient Lambayeque people were breeding felines at the site. The theory as to why is not at all different from the reason other ancient civilizations, such as in ancient Egypt, kept cats – as a means to control vermin in what was a time of a rapidly expanding and delicate new invention… agriculture.

The zoologists are currently studying four examples of puma-like feline skeletons with the aim of discovering whether these show any signs of difference from the skeletons of wild cats that exist today. This will tell us whether any selective breeding occurred and to what extent.
Curious, I did a little checking on when our feline friends were first domesticated.  Needless to say, there is a wide range of information:

This site says cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt about 4,000 years ago.

This information from pushes the date of cat domestication back even further: 

Our modern day cat (Felis silvestris catus) is descended from one of five separate wild cats. The oldest archaeological evidence for domesticated cats has been found on the Greek island of Cyprus, where several animal species including cats were introduced by 7500 BC. Further, at the Neolithic site of Shillourokambos, a purposeful cat burial was found next to a human burial, dated between 9500-9200 years before the present.

The next is 6th millennium BC Haçilar, Turkey, where female figurines carrying cats or catlike figures in their arms have been discovered. There is some debate about the identification of these creatures as cats. Haçilar is well outside the normal distribution of F. s. lybica.

I was amazed and laughed my butt off to discover that a beloved cartoon character from my childhood, Sylvester the Cat, had a name rooted in actual science:

The wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, which was trapped in Israel as part of C.A. Driscoll's research into the origin of cat domestication. Cats similar to this one were the likely ancestor of the domestic cat.

And this information from Theories on the Domestication of Cats:

In 2004 an interesting discovery was unearthed in Cyprus, an island off of Greece. It had been known that cats were brought to Cyprus during the Neolithic age 10-11,000 years ago but no one could prove that these cats were tame or even brought on purpose. There was always the vague possibility that cats could have been stowaways on the ships and boats that brought the people over or were some of the wild animals intentionally brought over like the fox. However proof of their domestication came in the form of a human grave. Like most Neolithic graves in the area the person was surrounded by objects used in life and oddly enough, the skeleton of a cat. The cat was only 40 millimeters away from the person and it's theorized it either carried religious significance or was the pet of the human. It showed no visible forms of trauma on the skeleton and the cause of it's demise is unknown. Still it's intriguing. Looking further into the past researchers found clusters of cave paintings in Asia depicting small cats but it's impossible to know if they were domestic or wild.

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