While cats are one of the most popular pets in the world, relatively little has ever been learned about how the strongly-independent felines first managed to get domesticated. That, scientists say, is why the latest fossilized cat found in a Stone Age village in China is such a big deal.

The unearthed remains, estimated at 5,300 years old, demonstrate kitties lived with or alongside human communities much earlier than previously thought. And researchers believe the recent find does indeed offer greater insights into the initial domestication process.

The research is published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"What's really exciting about this study is it's the first evidence that shows us the processes by which cats came to live with humans," said Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St. Louis, in a report by USA Today. She continued that unlike dogs, which were tamed early hunter-gatherer tribes thousands of years before felines were invited into human domains, cats "were the animals of farmers."

A 9,500-year-old site in Cyprus revealed the oldest known incidence of a relationship between humans and wildcats. The remains of a human believed to have held a position high status was found buried there with a feline, suggesting that particular kitty had made friends with someone.

The first direct evidence of domesticated cats comes from ancient Egypt, where 4,000-year-old paintings depict people actually caring for cats.

Still, what happened way back when to initiate that first encounter between human and cat? The garbage pits in Quanhucan, a small village in central China, have already shown researchers a lot.

Marshall and her colleagues noted numerous ancient rodent burrows leading into the Quanhucan's grain storage pits. That alone suggested one big reason -- rat control -- why villagers may have wanted cats to stay around.

To discover what villagers ate, science team members analyzed the carbon and nitrogen isotopes present in the human and animal remains. The humans, dogs, pigs and rats all had diets rich in grain -- meaning the diets of the dogs and pigs were essentially the humans' leftovers.

The cats appeared to primarily dine on smaller creatures, such as rats, which had grain-rich diets.

One of the cats appeared to extremely worn teeth, indicating that it had lived many years, perhaps because it was cared for by the ancient villagers after old age set in.

The DNA of the Chinese cats still needs to be determined, although researchers have two theories: one, because genetic studies have linked contemporary felines with the Near Eastern Wildcat, indigenous to northern Africa, the cats found in China could have been imported there through ancient trade routes; otherwise, the cats in Quanhucan could have been native wildcats evolving into human pets.