Ancestors of domestic cats in Neolithic Central Europe: Isotopic evidence of a synanthropic diet
Most of today’s domesticates began as farm animals, but cat domestication took a different path. Cats became commensal of humans somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, attracted to early farmers’ settlements by rodent pests. Cat remains from Poland dated to 4,200 to 2,300 y BCE are currently the earliest evidence for the migration of the Near Eastern wildcat to Central Europe. Tracking the possible synanthropic origin of that migration, we used stable isotopes to investigate the paleodiet. We found that the ecological balance was already changed due to the expansion of Neolithic farmlands. We conclude that among the Late Neolithic Near Eastern wildcats from Poland were free-living individuals, who preyed on rodent pests and shared ecological niches with native European wildcats.
Cat remains from Poland dated to 4,200 to 2,300 y BCE are currently the earliest evidence for the migration of the Near Eastern cat (NE cat), the ancestor of domestic cats, into Central Europe. This early immigration preceded the known establishment of housecat populations in the region by around 3,000 y. One hypothesis assumed that NE cats followed the migration of early farmers as synanthropes. In this study, we analyze the stable isotopes in six samples of Late Neolithic NE cat bones and further 34 of the associated fauna, including the European wildcat. We approximate the diet and trophic ecology of Late Neolithic felids in a broad context of contemporary wild and domestic animals and humans. In addition, we compared the ecology of Late Neolithic NE cats with the earliest domestic cats known from the territory of Poland, dating to the Roman Period. Our results reveal that human agricultural activity during the Late Neolithic had already impacted the isotopic signature of rodents in the ecosystem. These synanthropic pests constituted a significant proportion of the NE cat’s diet. Our interpretation is that Late Neolithic NE cats were opportunistic synanthropes, most probably free-living individuals (i.e., not directly relying on a human food supply). We explore niche partitioning between studied NE cats and the contemporary native European wildcats. We find only minor differences between the isotopic ecology of both these taxa. We conclude that, after the appearance of the NE cat, both felid taxa shared the ecological niches.
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