Oxford, England — Scientists have uncovered new information about cats in the historical world in general and about Viking cats in particular.
Viking legends abound with stories of felines. For example, according to Norse mythology two enormous cats drew the chariot of Freyja, goddess of love and beauty. But until now, no one was sure where Viking cats came from.
It has long been known that the ancient Egyptians kept cats as pets 6,000 years ago. Mummified cats have been found by the millions in Egyptian tombs. So did the Vikings import their cats from Egypt?
This is just one question being investigated by recent ancient-cat DNA research; a new study suggests that during antiquity, cats interacted with prehistoric farmers and traveled throughout the ancient world on the ships of merchants and marauders, including those of Vikings.
Data from the world’s first large-scale study of ancient-cat DNA was presented on September 15, 2016, at a conference at Oxford University in England called the “Seventh International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology.” The study was presented by Eva-Maria Geigl of the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris.
The new investigation is possible because of a recent drop in expenses involved in DNA research. Decreased costs enabled Geigl and her cat-loving colleagues to look at DNA from the remains of 209 cats at 30 archaeological sites in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Some of the studied feline remains date as far back as 15,000 years ago (the Mesolithic period, when humans lived as hunter-gatherers), while others are as recent as the 1700s.
For example, researchers investigated the remains of a cat buried 9,500 years ago with a human in Cyprus. Scientists say the fact that the two were buried together implies that cats have been humans’ companions for about 10,000 years or more.
The study shows that cats spread through the world in two waves. Feral cats from the Middle East were adopted by the earliest human farmers in the eastern Mediterranean. This happened because the farmers were growing grain, which attracted rodents, which attracted wild cats. After seeing the feral felines kill pesky rats and mice, humans adopted and tamed the cats, eventually domesticating them as farm felines. This practice spread from one farming community to another, perhaps with farmers exporting cats to regions where they were lacking.
In a second “feline diaspora” that took place thousands of years later, felines descended from Egyptian pets began to spread through Eurasia and Africa. DNA that can be linked to Egyptian cat mummies from as far back as the fourth century B.C. has been found in cat remains in Bulgaria, Turkey, and even sub-Saharan Africa. It is believed that this relocation of cats descended from those in Egypt occurred because ancient sailors kept felines on board their ships for rodent control.
Egyptian cat DNA was also found at a more recent Viking archeological site in northern Germany that dates to between the eighth and eleventh centuries A.D.
Pontus Skoglund is a Swedish geneticist — and therefore, perhaps himself a Viking descendent — who is a researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston. He points out, “There are so many interesting observations” in the new research.
“I didn’t even know there were Viking cats.”