Most people are all too familiar with house mice. We know them as the eaters of crumbs, gnawers of cords, and leavers of droppings. They create the pitter-patters we hear in the night and the messes we find in the morning.
Conventional wisdom has said that mice and people began living together when humans learned to farm. But new research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that our relationship with these rodents may be even more ancient.
By studying the fluctuations of house mouse fossils found in archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean, scientists have revealed that Mus musculus domesticus first cozied up to humans around 15,000 years ago.
That would be about 3,000 years before the advent of agriculture.
The findings offer an unusual glimpse into a murky period of human development, since the abundance of house mice teeth seems to track with our nomadic ancestors’ early experiments in settling down.
That makes the new study “a nice example of how house mouse research can be helpful for studying our own history,” says Miloš Macholán, an evolutionary biologist and co-author of The Evolution of the House Mouse.
For example, scientists studying the transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture may now be able to fill in gaps in the archaeological record by looking for the presence and proportions of mice molars, he says.
“I’d say it’s important to understand that mice have been accompanying us for a very long time,” says study leader Lior Weissbrod, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel. “We’ve been changing them and they’ve been changing us in ways that are not immediately apparent.”