Care for cats? So did people along the Silk Road more than 1,000 years ago

July 09, 2020

Common domestic cats, as we know them today, might have accompanied Kazakh pastoralists as pets more than 1,000 years ago. This has been indicated by new analyses done on an almost complete cat skeleton found during an excavation along the former Silk Road in southern Kazakhstan. An international research team led by Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU), Korkyt-Ata Kyzylorda State University in Kazakhstan, the University of Tübingen and the Higher School of Economics in Russia has reconstructed the cat's life, revealing astonishing insights into the relationship between humans and pets at the time. The study will appear in the journal "Scientific Reports".

The tomcat - which was examined by a team led by Dr Ashleigh Haruda from the Central Natural Science Collections at MLU - did not have an easy life. "The cat suffered several broken bones during its lifetime," says Haruda. And yet, based on a very conservative estimate, the animal had most likely made it past its first year of life. For Haruda and her colleagues, this is a clear indication that people had taken care of this cat.

During a research stay in Kazakhstan, the scientist examined the findings of an excavation in Dzhankent, an early medieval settlement in the south of the country which had been mainly populated by the Oghuz, a pastoralist Turkic tribe. There she discovered a very well-preserved skeleton of a cat. According to Haruda, this is quite rare because normally only individual bones of an animal are found during an excavation, which prevents any systematic conclusions from being drawn about the animal's life. The situation is different when it comes to humans since usually whole skeletons are found. "A human skeleton is like a biography of that person. The bones provide a great deal of information about how the person lived and what they experienced," says Haruda. In this case, however, the researchers got lucky: after its death, the tomcat was apparently buried and therefore the entire skull including its lower jaw, parts of its upper body, legs and four vertebrae had been preserved.

Haruda worked together with an international team of archaeologists and ancient DNA specialists. An examination of the tomcat's skeleton revealed astonishing details about its life. First, the team took 3D images and X-rays of its bones. "This cat suffered a number of fractures, but survived," says Haruda. Isotope analyses of bone samples also provided the team with information about the cat's diet. Compared to the dogs found during the excavation and to other cats from that time period, this tomcat's diet was very high in protein. "It must have been fed by humans since the animal had lost almost all its teeth towards the end of its life."

DNA analyses also proved that the animal was indeed likely to be a domestic cat of the Felis catus L. species and not a closely related wild steppe cat. According to Haruda, it is remarkable that cats were already being kept as pets in this region around the 8th century AD: "The Oghuz were people who only kept animals when they were essential to their lives. Dogs, for example, can watch over the herd. They had no obvious use for cats back then," explains the researcher. The fact that people at the time kept and cared for such "exotic" animals indicates a cultural change, which was thought to have occurred at a much later point in time in Central Asia. The region was thought to have been slow in making changes with respect to agriculture and animal husbandry.

The Dhzankent settlement, where the remains of the cat were found, was located along the Silk Road, an ancient network of important caravan routes that connected Central and East Asia with the Mediterranean region by land. According to Haruda, the find is also an indication of cultural exchange between the regions located along the Silk Road.
-end-
The study was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the German Research Foundation (DFG), the University of Leicester and the Max Planck Society.

About the study: Haruda A. et al. The earliest domestic cat on the Silk Road. Scientific Reports (2020). doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-67798-6 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-67798-6

Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

Related Cats Articles from Brightsurf:

Feeding indoor cats just once a day could improve health
New University of Guelph research has found that feeding cats one large meal a day may help control hunger better than feeding them several times a day.

More cats might be COVID-19 positive than first believed, study suggests
A newly published study looking at cats in Wuhan, where the first known outbreak of COVID-19 began, shows more cats might be contracting the disease than first believed.

Fighting like cats and dogs?
We are all familiar with the old adage ''fighting like cat and dog'', but a new scientific study now reveals how you can bid farewell to those animal scraps and foster a harmonious relationship between your pet pooch and feline friend.

Welfare concerns highlighted over 'institutional hoarding' of cats
The compulsive hoarding of animals is a poorly understood psychiatric disorder in people.

Two quantum cheshire cats exchange grins
Prof. LI Chuanfeng, XU Jinshi, and XU Xiaoye from University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), collaborating with Prof.

Why cats have more lives than dogs when it comes to snakebite
Cats are twice as likely to survive a venomous snakebite than dogs, and the reasons behind this strange phenomenon have been revealed by University of Queensland research.

Study confirms cats can become infected with and may transmit COVID-19 to other cats
In a study published today (May 13, 2020) in the New England Journal of Medicine, scientists in the U.S. and Japan report that in the laboratory, cats can readily become infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and may be able to pass the virus to other cats.

Unraveling the puzzle of Madagascar's forest cats
Michelle Sauther has long wondered where Madagascar's mysterious wild cats came from.

Keeping cats indoors could blunt adverse effects to wildlife
A new study shows that hunting by house cats can have big effects on local animal populations because they kill more prey, in a given area, than similar-sized wild predators.

The 'purrfect' music for calming cats
Taking a cat to the vets can be a stressful experience, both for cat and owner.

Read More: Cats News and Cats Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.