Cats voyaged with the Vikings on their longships, genetic study reveals

According to the most important study on the genetics of the cats that was presented at the International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Oxford, United Kingdom, in late September, 2016, it has been revealed that our cuddly feline companions migrated to Eurasia and Africa concomitantly with the first human farmers.

Furthermore, the same research highlights the fact that cats spread around the world in two major stages. The start of the first wave of cat migration can be indicated some 9,500 years old, according to the remains of a cat from a tomb discovered in Cyprus, shedding light as such on the close ancestral relationship between the early human farmers and their feline friends. The second stage unfolded several thousand years later, specifically during Antiquity, when cats from Ancient Egypt traveled to the rest of the African and Asian continents.

The Norwegian Forest cats were the companion choice of the Norse sailors, being used as mousers on their longships during the Viking Age. Image source: www.pexels.com

The study in question analyzed samples of the remains of cats dating from as early as the 18th century and as late as the Stone Age (some 8,900 to 3,900 years ago). Cat genomes from thirty places all over the world aided the researchers in order to solve the enigmatic puzzle behind the history of this domesticated animal breed.

After these two main waves of migration, cats were subsequently lend a ‘helping hand’ (or better put, a ‘helping paw’) by the tenacious Norse sailors, who took them as mousers on their dragon carved longships throughout the Viking Age.

The fact that cats played a significant part in the Norse society is doubtless. They are referenced in the Scandinavian folklore and in the Norse mythology as being most notably linked to the gods of the Vikings. So it is, for instance, that two cats are said to pull the chariot of Freyja, one of the Vanir gods associated with fertility.

By the late part of the Viking Age, the Norsemen certainly wore cat skins, according to conservator Kristian Gregersen from the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, after analyzing various archaeological finds from the database of the museum.

It is is also known from archaeological sources that cats were brought by Norse settlers to both Greenland and Vinland (i.e. Newfoundland, Canada), throughout the late 10th and early 11th centuries. These were likely the Norwegian Forest cats, who in turn might have been brought from the British archipelago to Scandinavia during the Dark Ages, managing to grow their fur longer in order to withstand the harsh Nordic winters.

In fact, it is also likely that the Maine Coons are genetically related to the Norwegian Foresters who voyaged with the renowned Norse explorer Leif Ericsson to North America in circa 1000.

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