Long before cats became the darlings of Facebook and YouTube, they spread through the ancient human world. A DNA study reached back thousands of years to track that conquest and found evidence of two major dispersals from the Middle East, in which people evidently took cats with them, reports the AP. Genetic signatures the felines had on those journeys are still seen in most modern-day breeds. Researchers analyzed DNA from 209 ancient cats as old as 9,000 years from Europe, Africa, and Asia, including some ancient Egyptian cat mummies. "They are direct witnesses of the situation in the past," said Eva-Maria Geigl of the Jacques Monod Institute in Paris. She and colleagues also looked at 28 modern feral cats from Bulgaria and east Africa.
The new study tracked the spread of specific cat DNA markers over long distances through time, a sign that people had taken cats with them. Results were released Monday by the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. In the DNA samples analyzed, one genetic signature found first in the Asian portion of Turkey showed up more than 6,000 years ago in Bulgaria. That indicates cats had been taken there by boat with the first farmers colonizing Europe. A second genetic signature, first seen in Egypt, had reached Europe between the first and fifth centuries, as shown by a sample from Bulgaria. It was found in a seventh-century sample from a Viking trading port in northern Europe, and an eighth-century sample from Iran. The dispersal of the cats across the Mediterranean was probably encouraged by their usefulness in controlling rodents and other pests on ships.