The book of cat domestication is missing a few pages. The oldest record of cats entering human society comes from an early farming village known as Shillourokambos, located on the southern coast of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. In 2001, researchers led by Jean-Denis Vigne, now director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, discovered the shared grave of a human and feline underneath an ancient home. The skeleton of the animal—dated to 9500 years ago—was surrounded by carved seashells, indicating that cats held a special status in this society. Indeed, Vigne and others have argued that felines were important to the survival of such villages, whose large surpluses of grain attracted armies of rodents; the tamest cats, meanwhile, cozied up to humans, self-domesticating themselves over the course of thousands of years. Yet, there was no solid evidence for this hypothesis, and cats largely vanished from the historical record until about 4000 years ago, when they began to appear on the tomb paintings of ancient Egypt.
The new study fills in some of that missing history. A team of archaeologists excavating an ancient settlement known as Quanhucun in central China has found eight cat bones—a pelvis, a mandible, and other pieces, all dating to about 5300 years ago—scattered among other animal bones, pottery fragments, and stone tools in garbage pits around the site. The villagers, perhaps a thousand strong, were successful millet farmers—and they clearly had a pest problem. The researchers unearthed rodent burrows tunneled into grain storage pits and v-shaped ceramic vessels the size of giant flower vases, likely designed to keep stored grain out of the mouths of scavengers. The inhabitants’ best weapon against these rodents, however, may have been cats.