When you think about the history of humans and cats, you probably conjure up thoughts of Egyptian pharaohs and their pampered pets. But now researchers think that cats might have been taking the first steps toward domestication in a small farming village in China, as early as 5,300 years ago -- 1,300 years before the Egyptians began depicting their feline companions in art.

One of the most prominent theories for the origin of cat domestication is that wild felines began hanging around humans sometime after we began farming. Our crops and trash attracted lots of things cats like to eat -- rodents, small birds -- which made for a kitty smorgasbord. Over generations, the cat adapted along with us, but mostly lived a half-feral existence as pest control until people began taking a fancy to indoor cats a couple centuries ago. A lot of the details in this story -- exactly when cats first attached themselves to people, and where -- remain something of a mystery.

“We often argue if our cats are fully domesticated now,” says Leslie Lyons, a cat geneticist at the University of Missouri. “Cats have always remained a bit closer to the wild.”

Now, an archeological dig in the village of Quanhucun in China uncovered bones from at least two different cats that scientists think may offer clues to the story. In an analysis published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences researcher Yaowu Hu and colleagues say the cats show signs of existing closely alongside humans.

"Results of this study show that the village of Quanhucun was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, and the relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats," study co-author and Washington University in St. Louis researcher Fiona Marshall said in a statement. "Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits."

Close analysis of the remains revealed that one of the cats lived into old age, and at least one of the cats of Quanhucun ate a lot of grain. Both details suggest that cats might have been taken care of by humans, and perhaps even fed.

The find “is definitely showing that cats have been a very important part of us developing as an agricultural species,” Lyons (who is unaffiliated with the current paper) says.

But it’s still unclear just how close a relationship these ancient kitties may have had with the villagers. Carlos Driscoll, a geneticist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and a cat domestication researcher, points out that there could be other explanations for the condition the ancient felines were in. Cats may have eaten grain and hung around long enough to get long in the tooth, but not necessarily due to any human intervention.

“A human environment provides protection,” Driscoll says. “Humans might not exclude a little cat, but they will exclude tigers, eagles and other things that would have picked a cat off.”

Driscoll also notes that the cat remains that the team found was thrown on the village trash heap, mixed in with lots of other animals -- not the treatment you’d expect for a pet. The villagers might have even killed and skinned the cats, looking on them just as another wild animal living at the fringes of their town.

Another question left unanswered is where, exactly, the cats at Quanhucun came from. The paper presents two distinct hypotheses. One possibility is that the cats are native to that part of China, which would suggest that cats might have been domesticated in several independent events. Another possibility is that cats were domesticated elsewhere, perhaps in the Fertile Crescent, and brought east. It wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented -- more than 9,500 years ago, humans brought non-native cats to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and were even occasionally buried with them.

“The interesting thing is, [Quanhucun] is right at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road,” Driscoll says. “If cats were to come from the West, that’s where you’d expect to find them.”

A future DNA analysis of the remains will likely unveil where the cats came from. While the location of Quanhucun might suggest that the cats were brought from the west, what we know about modern-day cats also lends credence to an independent domestication event in the east.

“We do know that the [domestic] cats of the Far East and Southeast Asia are very genetically different from the cats of the rest of the world,” Lyons says. “It kind of makes you wonder.”

SOURCE: Hu et al. “Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online 16 December 2013.