Our domestic cat and the wild cat avoided each other for 2000 years. For sad reasons, things are different now

He is known for being stubborn. But the fact that our domestic cat and its wild counterparts avoided each other for 2,000 years goes a long way. Yet it was so. And that only recently changed.

Our domestic cat is descended from the African wildcat and came to Europe from ancient Egypt and Turkey. The oldest remains of a domestic cat have been found in Cyprus and date back to around 9,500 years ago. The domestic cat also arrived in our region about 2000 to 3000 years ago, but the European wild cats had no use for our feline friends for thousands of years. This only changed around the 1960s. Had the flower power culture also caught on with the European wildcat? No, there’s probably a more obscure reason for the sudden cross-pollination. Wild cat populations have been threatened by humans in recent centuries. Crossing with feral domestic cats therefore increasingly leads to mongrels, although this is still quite rare.

Sixty years ago
Oxford researchers this week two studies published that shed new light on the history of cats in Europe. They have discovered a wealth of new archaeological and genetic evidence about interbreeding between the two species, after the domestic cat was introduced to Scotland more than 2,000 years ago and came into contact with the local European wild cat population. A total of 48 modern cats and 258 samples of ancient cats – excavated from 85 different archaeological sites up to 8,500 years old – were studied.

The studies show that domestic cats and European wild cats had no interest in each other from the start. The scientists found no evidence of mutual sexual relations and hybrids that arose from this. But this pattern changed in Scotland from 1960 onwards. This may be the result of a decrease in the number of feral cats and deteriorated reproductive opportunities. Regardless, the data clearly shows that the crossbreeding rates between European wild cats and domestic cats suddenly skyrocketed.

Loss of habitat and hunting
“Wild cats and domestic cats only started mating very recently. It is clear that the interbreeding is a result of modern dangers that affect many of our original species. Habitat loss and hunting have driven feral cats to near-extinction,” says researcher Jo Howard-McCome of the University of Bristol. “It’s fascinating that we can use genetic data from archaeological excavations to map the history of the European wildcat. We can then use this new information to protect the Scottish wild cats that are still around.”

A wonderful journey of discovery
“We tend to think very differently about cats than we do about dogs. But our data shows – at least in terms of avoiding mating with their wild counterparts – that dogs and cats are more similar to each other than to other pets. Answering the question of why this is the case will be a wonderful journey of discovery,” says Professor Gregor Larson of the University of Oxford.

For for a long time the true nature of the Scottish wildcat and its association with domestic cats was a mystery. “By using modern molecular methods and statistical models, we now know a lot more about the relationship between the two species and the dangers that ultimately led to the decline of the wildcat,” said Professor Mark Beaumont from Bristol.

Close relationship between humans and animals
The lives of domestic animals, such as cows, horses, sheep, goats, dogs and pigs, have been linked to humans for many years. This has been the case since the first farming communities emerged more than 10,000 years ago. These close ties have led to plants and animals spreading around the world, far beyond their original habitats. Man took them everywhere. In the past decade, much more has become clear about this through genetic research. A pattern can be seen in many places, where domesticated animals mate with wild populations and this leads to offspring. This is the case with all domesticated animals, except dogs. And cats don’t like it either. Until they see no other option.