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The origin and dispersal of the domestic cat remain elusive despite its importance to human societies around the world. Archaeological evidence for domestication centers in the Near East and in Egypt is contested, and genetic data on modern cats show that Felis silvestris lybica, the subspecies of wild cat inhabiting at present the Near East and Northern Africa, is the only ancestor of the domestic cat. Here we provide the first broad geographic and chronological dataset of ancient cat mtDNA sequences, drawing on archaeological specimens from across western Eurasia and northern and eastern Africa, dating from throughout the Holocene and spanning ~9,000 years. We characterized the ancient phylogeography of F. s. lybica, showing that it expanded up to southeastern Europe prior to the Neolithic, and reconstructed the subsequent movements that profoundly transformed its distribution and shaped its early cultural history. We found that maternal lineages from both the Near East and Egypt contributed to the gene pool of the domestic cat at different historical times, with the Near Eastern population providing the first major contribution during the Neolithic and the Egyptian cat spreading efficiently across the Old World during the Classical period. This expansion pattern and range suggest dispersal along maritime and terrestrial routes of trade and connectivity. Late trait selection is suggested by the first occurrence in our dataset of the major allele for blotched-tabby body marking not earlier than during the Late Middle Ages.

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