Cats, people, and ice ages: Domestic cats and us

Go back far enough in Fluffy’s history, and you’ll discover Felis silvestris, the “cat of the forest” or wildcat.

Wildcats and people

Wildcats in Europe haven’t changed much down through time. (Image: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Wildcats probably evolved from old Felis lunensis in what is now Europe.

They stayed there for a long time, since it was impossible for them to cross the great oceans.

As far as paleontologists can tell, the first modern wildcats showed up some 400,000 years ago, shortly before the Illinois/Riss ice age.

That’s not the most recent one — a/k/a Wisconsin/Würm (about 115,000 to 14,000 years ago) — but the ice age before that (from roughly 350,000 to 130,000 years ago).

Wildcats and humans go back a long way.

We need to mention a couple more numbers in order to bring people into the picture.

Just one of the hypotheses of early human history. Let’s not get into details. (Image: Dbachmann via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Homo sapiens may have appeared in Africa 300,000 years ago (Illinois/Riss times).

This is controversial, though, like almost all ideas about human evolution.

“Would someone PLEASE invent central heating? And houses? And weather-proof windows?” (Image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

However, molecular studies (Fu and others) do place the most recent common ancestor of everyone today at around 157,000 years ago — towards the end of the Illinois/Riss freeze.

So, like wildcats, we are the children of two ice ages!

Warmth amidst the ice

In between those Illinois/Riss and Wisconsin/Würm glaciations, there was a warm period like the one we’re currently in. Ours is called the Holocene; this older one has several names, including “Eemian.”

This Eemian interglacial period may have lasted from about 140,000 to 115,000 years ago. (Belknap)

That’s when wildcats and people were enjoying a climate similar to and, perhaps, a little warmer than our own.

Ironically, we know this by studying ice cores, as in this 2009 video.

The Eemian lasted for tens of thousands of years, but if our ancestors and those of Fluffy met then, no traces of the encounter have come down to us.

There is some evidence that both species moved around, though.

Wildcats head south

Paleontologists like Yamaguchi et al. suspect that Europe continued to be the center of early F. silvestris evolution through these complex glacial-interglacial times.

Then, as now (at least in the wild areas), there were plenty of small animals to hunt.

But a few wildcats, possibly early steppe wildcats, did migrate south and east as the Eemian warm spell got going. Their fossils sit in what are now 130,000-year-old African and Middle Eastern rocks.

Such feline explorers needed to adapt to a very different environment.

This has given us today’s African wildcat (note that a wildcat kills and eats a rodent in this video; the film makers do give rodents face time at the very end, though):

Next, according to other fossils, wildcats from Europe again moved into the Middle East. This was about 50,000 years ago — well into the most recent ice age.

But they didn’t stay very long.

Enough time had passed for there now to be steppe wildcats in Africa.

And these African wildcats, upon prowling up into the area themselves some 20,000 years ago, as the worst Wisconsin/Würm temperatures (estimated to be anywhere from 10° to 40° F colder than today) began to ease, met and drove their European relatives out of the Middle East.

The ousted members of that older F. silvestris lineage went back to Europe, where they still live today.

Even young European wildcats are wary. (Image: PeterTrimming, CC BY 2.0)

If Africa’s wildcats had not forced this move, there probably wouldn’t be domestic cats around today.

Modern European wildcats, reportedly, are almost impossible to tame. Presumably they were just as cantankerous 20,000 years ago. There’s no way they would have approached the humans who were about to move into the Middle East and settle down on farms.

But African wildcats could do this. Even today, some come in close to settlements and the outskirts of urban areas.

The Fertile Crescent

As the last great ice sheets melted away some 14,000 years ago, global climate shifts turned parts of the Middle East into parklands filled with nut trees and wild varieties of wheat and other nourishing foods, including wild peas and lentils.

You already know what happened next.

This richness attracted plant-eaters (and their predators), as well as nomadic human hunter-gatherers.

Life here was so good that people decided to stick around, turning their old base camps into farms and small settlements. These in turn provided lots of food for rodents and other small animals, as well as excellent hunting grounds for the African wildcat and other small predators.

Such human-tolerant wildcats probably also established territories in and around our infrastructure, where there wasn’t as much competition as in the wild, and where there were lots of nooks and crannies to serve as hidey-holes to rest in and dens for giving birth and raising families.

Then, at least 10,000 years ago, human and cat finally met. Each assessed the other’s strengths and weaknesses, liked what they saw, and took mutual steps towards forming what is now a close bond that continues to enrich their descendants’ lives today.

But that is a story for another post.

So, if whoever controls the grain wields power, what does that make the cat protecting grain stores from rodents and other pests?

Featured image: African steppe wildcat, by Martin Mecnarowsi/Shutterstock


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