April 09, 2004

Friday Cat Blogging (Science Geek Department)

Lacking a digital camera, I can't do proper Friday cat blogging, so I'll point to some recent papers instead.

J.-D. Vigne, J. Guilaine, K. Debue, L. Haye, and P. Gérard, "Early Taming of the Cat in Cyprus", Science 304 (2004): 259 [Link]
This brief note describes the discovery of an apparent joint burial of a human being and a cat, c. 7200 to 7500 B.C. (Some of the details that follow come from the on-line supplementary material.) The human being was aged at least thirty, buried facing west. Whoever it was, they rated a lot of Neolithic swag: "a marine shell, a stone pendant, a very uncommon discoid flint scraper, two small polished axes (one of them broken), a pumice stone, a fragment of ochre, a large flint piercing tool, and several non-retouched flint blades and bladelets," plus, in a near-by pit, twenty-four sea-shells from three species: "One shell of each species had been artificially pierced; the remaining 21 shells had not been worked. All the 24 shells had been arranged around a central raw fragment of a green soft stone used for jewellery [sic] (‘picrolite’)". "This is the only burial with such a high number of offerings for the whole Preceramic and Aceramic Neolithic in Cyprus." The cat was aged eight months, apparently buried at the same time, definitely buried in the same orientation as the human, and was definitely not butchered.
The significance here is that this pushes back the period for which we have firm evidence of the taming of cats considerably. While there has been a lot of speculation that cats were tamed in the Near East by early farmers for rodent control --- "this is the cat that ate the rat", etc. --- there wasn't much in the way of proof, though archaeologists have found a lot of cat figurines of roughly this date from Syria and Turkey, which is suggestive. (For more on this theory, see Budiansky's The Character of Cats, which is generally a fun look at how vicious solitary predators manage to convince themselves to be pets.) Before this, the oldest really hard evidence for tamed cats comes from Egypt c. 2000 B.C. Since food storage is one of the essential pre-conditions for the development of social hierarchy and oppression, it is no coincidence, comrades, that we find the oldest known domestic cat buried beside someone who clearly benefitted from the new mode of production.
K. Ullas Karanth, James D. Nichols, N. Samba Kumar, William A. Link, and James E. Hines, "Tigers and their prey: Predicting carnivore densities from prey abundance", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 101 (2004): 4854--4858 [link]
Abstract: "The goal of ecology is to understand interactions that determine the distribution and abundance of organisms. In principle, ecologists should be able to identify a small number of limiting resources for a species of interest, estimate densities of these resources at different locations across the landscape, and then use these estimates to predict the density of the focal species at these locations. In practice, however, development of functional relationships between abundances of species and their resources has proven extremely difficult, and examples of such predictive ability are very rare. Ecological studies of prey requirements of tigers Panthera tigris led us to develop a simple mechanistic model for predicting tiger density as a function of prey density. We tested our model using data from a landscape-scale long-term (1995--2003) field study that estimated tiger and prey densities in 11 ecologically diverse sites across India. We used field techniques and analytical methods that specifically addressed sampling and detectability, two issues that frequently present problems in macroecological studies of animal populations. Estimated densities of ungulate prey ranged between 5.3 and 63.8 animals per km2. Estimated tiger densities (3.2--16.8 tigers per 100 km2) were reasonably consistent with model predictions. The results provide evidence of a functional relationship between abundances of large carnivores and their prey under a wide range of ecological conditions. In addition to generating important insights into carnivore ecology and conservation, the study provides a potentially useful model for the rigorous conduct of macroecological science."
While that last sentence is not the most modest statement ever to appear in a scientific abstract, it seems to be true. (Unlike some papers in PNAS, this one went through normal peer-review.) Note that their data support the idea that the densities of tigers and their prey are both log-normally distributed. There will, accordingly, be a prize for the first reader to discover a paper by physicists claiming these distributions follow power-laws.

Update: Gary Farber blogs the first story too. Farber is always worth reading; go pay him a visit and, if he pleases, help out his tip-jar (I have).

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Biology; Friday Cat Blogging; Writing for Antiquity

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