That age-old question of which pet is best: cats or dogs, has come one step nearer to being answered as DNA tests reveal that cats were man’s best friend thousands of years ago.

Researchers have analysed specific DNA markers from 352 ancient cats extracted from archaeological sites, Egyptian mummies and Viking burial grounds to highlight the long, co-dependent relationship between humans and their feline friends. DNA was also taken from skin samples and claws of 28 modern-day wildcats from east Africa and Bulgaria.

The researchers, writing in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution,1 from the Jacques Monod Institute in Paris, France, believe that ancient societies in both the Near East and Egypt could have played key roles in cat domestication. A complete cat skeleton found in Cyprus buried alongside a human from around 7500 BC suggests that cats were probably tamed by early Neolithic communities. Similarly, the skeletons of six cats in an elite Predynastic cemetery in Egypt, around 3700 BC, suggest a close cat–human relationship in early ancient Egypt.

Numerous depictions in Egyptian art from the 2nd millennium BC back up the growing relationship between humans and cats.

With the advent of the Agricultural Revolution and the wide-scale transition of many human cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of farming and settlement, cats provided an easy method of controlling nuisance rodents in grain stores.

This talent for pest control was later exploited on ships and cats began to travel the world with their human partners.

DNA research has shown that the proliferation of cats followed the spread of civilization via trade routes and they eventually reached every continent except Antarctica. Evidence shows that cats were living in Europe during the Roman Empire, and cat DNA was found in a Viking port in northern Europe.

Meanwhile research into dog domestication continues. The main hypothesis is that some wolves moved into a mutually beneficial relationship with prehistoric humans. As such, both domestic cats and dogs have evolved from a long interdependent relationship with humans. So, the age-old argument continues……


1 Ottoni C et al. The palaeogenetics of cat dispersal in the ancient world. Nat Ecol Evol 2017;1:0139.

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