The House Cat (Felis catus) is a descendant of the African Wild Cat (Felis silvestris), specifically of the species’ Near Eastern race (Felis silvestris libyca). They were domesticated around 10,000 years ago, somewhere in the belt stretching over North Africa and West Asia. This happened around the time when agriculture was being developed in the Fertile Crescent. Farmers might have encouraged cats to keep the population of rodents down in their houses, fields and granaries. Rats and mice presented a major problem to the sedentary communities of the region (combining Egypt, the Levant, Anatolia and Mesopotamia) that depended on the cultivation of cereal crops (wheat, rye and barley) for subsistence. According to evolutionary biologists, the world’s House Cats, all 500 million of them, rose from those pioneering individuals. The earliest evidence of its domestication comes not from Egypt, as was believed for very long, but the island of Cyprus, 9,500 years ago. Here, a cat was found buried alongside a human in a Neolithic era village. Archaeologists believe that House Cats were brought to the Mediterranean island from neighboring Turkey by a group of farmers.
But there is another species of felid that underwent the same process on the opposite side of Asia, the Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). Like the Rusty Spotted Cat and the Fishing Cat, it is also a member of the the Asian genus of small cats, Prionailurus. All three are to be found in South Asia. But the association between humans and Leopard Cats took place in the Far East, in northern China. Here, in the Shaanxi and Henan Provinces, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences found bones of a small felid scattered among Neolithic settlements dating back to 3500 BCE. Careful investigation revealed them to be the remains of Leopard Cats. Like the African Wild Cat, this felid shows a preference for human habitations and farmland, where it is safe from bigger predators and has plenty of rodents to hunt. The development of agriculture in East Asia, as was the case in West Asia, presented a golden opportunity. However, the Leopard Cat did not make the most of it. It would be replaced by House Cats arriving from the west, along the Silk Road, most probably around the time the Roman and Han empires established contact.
The Leopard Cat, like the African Wild Cat is a very common and widespread species. It lives over a wide range of habitats, from the sheltered valleys of Central Asia (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) to the snowy forests of the Far East (in Russia, Korea, Japan and China) and the steaming jungles of the Malay Archipelago (Indonesia and the Philippines). It looks like a scaled-down leopard, with a slender frame, long legs, a short muzzle, round head and big ears. Adults can reach a total length of 45-65 cm (out of which the tail takes up as much as 20-30 cm) and weigh between 1.6 to 8.0 kg. A nocturnal creature, it is good at climbing and swimming. Leopard Cats hunt rodents, lizards, frogs, fish and insects. They do so even inside heavily disturbed spaces like logged forests, sugarcane fields and oil palm plantations. Apart from habitat destruction, the species faces threats from poachers (who target it for meat, fur and the pet trade).
Local names for the Leopard Cat:
- Hindi – Chita Billi
- Bengali – Ban Bidal
- Marathi – Wagati
- Kannada – Huli Bekku
Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a painting of the Leopard Cat from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1871), and was uploaded by the Biodiversity Heritage Library.