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Valentina Rovelli, Bea De Cupere, Wim Van Neer, Frank Zachos, Marica Baldoni, Marco de Martino, and Claudio Ottoni (2023)

Paleogenetic analysis of cat mummies from ancient Egypt

In: ISBA (International Society for Biomolecular Archaeology) - New Horizons in Biomolecular Archaeology, 13-16/09/2023, Tartu (Estonia).

Situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, Egypt is considered one of the two potential cradles of cat domestication (Felis catus). Here, cats most likely developed their relationship with humans with a dual role. In fact, on the one hand Egyptian iconography depicts cats as skilled hunters, and on the other hand as companion animals, quietly sitting under the chairs of noble people and as guardians of the deceased (Yoyotte & Vernus, 2005). Egyptian cats were object of a cult dedicated to the goddess Bastet, and from the 1st millennium BC until the 4th century AD were mummified as votive offerings. Previous ancient DNA (aDNA) investigation (Ottoni 2017) showed that cats in ancient Egypt possessed two maternal lineages commonly found in modern domestic cats. Haplotype-C, which spread all over the Old World since Classical Antiquity from Northern Africa, and haplotype-A, which was associated with an earlier cat dispersal from the Levant during the Neolithic. DNA from cat mummies represents a key tool to unravel the role of Egypt as a possible independent centre of domestication, despite the fact that the retrieval of aDNA from mummified tissues has greatly been challenged by DNA preservation. Here, we show the preliminary results of aDNA analyses conducted on more than 50 Egyptian cat mummies from Beni Hassan and Gourna (Luxor), dated to the Greco-Roman period. By comparing different methods (e.g. single and double stranded genomic library construction), we provide an extensive case for screening DNA preservation in arid regions, and within different tissues, such as hair, claws, and petrous bones. We also explore the potential to gain novel insights on the dispersal of domestic cats from Egypt in Classical Antiquity through mitochondrial and genome-wide data.
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