Shrouded in myth, the Vikings have been regarded as both explorers and warriors but, much of what we know about them has changed including the role they played in helping our four-legged feline friends make their way around the world.
Researchers actually know very little about how cats were ‘domesticated’ so the first large-scale study of ancient feline DNA presented this past September in the UK is a big first step towards understanding how our beloved house cats came to be. Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, and her colleagues analyzed mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 209 cats that lived between about 15,000 years ago and the eighteenth century AD, from more than 30 archaeological sites across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
The first wave of cat expansion is something that most are familiar with – wild cats from the Middle East moved with early farming communities to the fertile Eastern Mediterranean. The cats were attracted by the rodents, who were attracted by the grains being stored by the farmers, and humans seeing the benefits they provided decided to keep the cats around. The discovery of a 9,500 year-old grave in Cyprus containing a cat buried with a human, suggests that the connection between felines and humans go as far back as 12,000 years.
During the second wave of expansion thousands of years later, cats descended from those in Egypt (It is generally thought that Ancient Egyptians tamed wild cats about 6,000 years ago) quickly spread throughout Eurasia and Africa. “A mitochondrial lineage common in Egyptian cat mummies from the end of the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD was also carried by cats in Bulgaria, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time.” It is very likely that sea-faring people like the Vikings kept cats on board their boats to help keep the rodent population down said researchers, who also discovered cat remains, with the same maternal DNA lineage present in the Egyptian cat mummies, at a Viking site in northern Germany dating to between the eighth and eleventh century AD.
Upon seeing the results of the first large-scale study of ancient feline DNA at the conference, Population Geneticist Pontus Skoglund from Harvard Medical School told Nature that he “didn’t even know there were Viking cats.” However, according to conservator Kristian Gregersen from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, the Vikings most certainly had domestic cats and that “people commonly wore cat skins by the late Viking Age.”
Interestingly this evidence seems to support the theory that two very popular and robust breeds the Maine Coon and the Norwegian Forest Cat, could have been brought to America and elsewhere by the Vikings. If you are wondering what that journey may have looked like be sure to click on the link or image below to check out this awesome, we wish it were real, flash-video by Joel Veitch.