Archaeology, or the study of historic activity by recovering and analyzing the physical aspects of the past, is vital to our understanding of history. Most of the time, archaeology is not dramatic, and its contribution to our knowledge of the past is incremental, filling in a few details of what is already known. But every now and then, archaeological finds either open up a whole new field of study, or radically alter our understanding of what we thought we already knew.
Following are ten of history’s more fascinating archaeological discoveries and sites.
1. Cats Domesticated Themselves
Until recently, the earliest known evidence for the domestication of wild cats into the common household cat dated to Ancient Egypt, about 4000 years ago. However, new archaeological discoveries indicate that the first domestication of cats probably happened in China. Feline bones unearthed in the Chinese agricultural village of Quanhucun, in Shaanxi, reveal that cats lived there alongside humans, about 5300 years ago.
As scientists pieced together from the archaeological evidence unearthed in Quanhucun and surrounding villages, the farmers’ grains attracted rodents, resulting in an unwelcome pest infestation. Ceramic storage containers from the period, specially designed to keep rodents out of the farmers’ grain stocks, indicate that the infestation was serious. The rodents, in turn, attracted wild cats.
Thus was born a three way relationship, that culminated in the domestication of wild cats. Farmers harvest and store grain in their villages. The stored grain attracts rodents to the village. The rodents in turn attract wild cats to the village. The farmers, observing the wild cats preying upon the rodents, tolerate the felines’ presence in their villages, and even encourage them. Eventually, the wild cats’ descendants become domestic cats.
A fascinating twist in the tale is that the wild cats lived alongside and amidst humans for thousands of years, before they were domesticated. DNA analysis shows that, during those millennia of coexistence preceding domestication, there was very little alteration in the wild cats’ genes. The only changes were minor and cosmetic alterations in the wild cats’ coats, to produce the dots and stripes of the tabby cat.
Another twist is that, unlike other domesticated animals, cat domestication did not come about because of deliberate human efforts. Instead, the process was initiated and driven by the wild cats themselves. Attracted by the relative abundance of rodents in and around human agricultural communities, they deliberately sought out those human communities, and the delicious rodents therein.
It was only after thousands of years of cats living alongside humans and preying upon the rodents infesting human crops, that the wild cats changed. Eventually, there was enough genetic variation between the wild cats living alongside humans and those still out in the wild, that we ended up with the common tabby. We did not bring that about, but simply tolerated and welcomed those wild cats, as they preyed on the rodents stealing our grains. So in that sense, humans did not domesticate cats. Instead, cats domesticated themselves.