All members of the Felidae family originated in Asia, but domestic cats originated in the Fertile Crescent, which includes parts of Iraq and several nearby countries. Wild cats like panthers traveled to the Americas on land bridges in prehistoric times.
Researchers traced the genetics of domestic and feral cats in Europe, Asia, China, Africa and the Middle East. The cats' mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother, traced back to the near eastern wildcat, which is found in the Fertile Crescent. This research supports the early archaeological evidence, which suggests that wild cats in that region essentially domesticated themselves by forming a mutually beneficial relationship with humans. As humans developed agricultural methods and began storing crops for later use, cats learned to hunt the rodents that threatened those stores. The oldest archaeological evidence was found in Cyprus, but researchers believe cats may have been domesticated before that.
From the Fertile Crescent, cats traveled out through trade and by sneaking onto ships and other transportation. Many cats were introduced to the Americas and Australia by following rats on to ships and being taken along for the voyage accidentally. Others were introduced on purpose as people brought their useful pets with them. Feral cat colonies are descended from escaped house cats.