NEW YORK - A cat-and-mouse game played out in a Chinese village some 5,300 years ago is helping scientists understand how wild felines transformed into the tame pets we know today.

In fact, it was the cat's appetite that started it down the path to domestication, scientists believe. The grain stored by ancient farmers was a magnet for rodents. And that drew wild cats into villages to hunt the little critters. Over time, cats adapted to village life and became tamer around their human hosts.

That's the leading theory, anyway, for how wild cats long ago were transformed and became ancestors of today's house cats. That happened in the Middle East, rather than China. But bones from the Chinese village back up the idea that felines took on the pest-control job in ancient times, says researcher Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St. Louis.

Marshall is an author of a report on the fossil research, published online last week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

It's not yet clear whether the cats were from a local wild population, or were already domesticated and had been brought in from elsewhere, Marshall said. Either way, it shows that ancient cats filled the niche at the heart of the hypothesis about how domestication began, she said.