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Cat History and Domestication

The History of the Domestic Cat

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A Hotel for Cats in Lyon, France

A cat enjoys its surroundings at The Roomer Hotel for cats on March 4, 2014 in Lyon, France. The Roomer Hotel, created by Audrey Marrocco, provides accommodation designed specifically for cats

Bruno Vigneron / Getty Images News / Getty Images
European Wild Cat (Felis silvestris)

European wild cat (Felis silvestris), 1828. From British Quadrupeds by William MacGillivray, one of the volumes in William Jardine's Naturalist's Library series. (Edinburgh, 1828).

Oxford Science Archive / Print Collector / Getty Images
Current Distribution of Felis silvestris

Current and historic distribution of Felis silvestris, the ancestor of the domestic cat.

Image © Science

The history of our modern day cat (Felis silvestris catus) begins with her descent from one of five separate wild cats: the Sardinian wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), the European wildcat (F. s. silvestris), the Central Asian wildcat (F.s. ornata), the subsaharan African wildcat (F.s. cafra and the Chinese desert cat (F.s. bieti). Each of these species is a distinctive subspecies of F. silvestris. Genetic analysis suggests that all domestic cats derive from at least five founder cats from the Fertile Crescent region, from whence they (or rather their descendants) were transported around the world.

How do you Make a Domestic Cat?

There are two difficulties inherent in determining when and how the cat was domesticated: one is that, unlike many other species, domesticated cats can and do interbreed with their feral cousins; the other is that the primary indicator of cat domestication is their sociability, and we all know how far that goes. Domestic cats are identified archaeologically by their relatively small size (compared to feral cats), by their presence outside of their normal range, and if they are given burials or have collars or the like.

According to cat researcher Sarah Hartwell, one theory of domestication promulgated by archaeologist J.A. Baldwin is that wild cats were first attracted to human settlements by the small rodents who themselves came to feed on agricultural stores. Humans may have simply tolerated or actively encouraged the cats to hang around and essentially guard those stores.

Cat History and Archaeology

The oldest archaeological evidence for domesticated cats was found on the Greek island of Cyprus, where several animal species including cats were introduced by 7500 BC. Further, at the Neolithic site of Shillourokambos, a purposeful cat burial was found next to a human burial, dated between 9500-9200 years before the present. The archaeological deposits of Shillourokambos also included the sculpted head of what looks like a combined human-cat being.

The next is 6th millennium BC Haçilar, Turkey, where female figurines carrying cats or catlike figures in their arms have been discovered. There is some debate about the identification of these creatures as cats. Haçilar is well outside the normal distribution of F. s. lybica.

Cats in Egypt

Up until very recently, most sources believed that domesticated cats became widespread after the Egyptian civilization took its part in the process. One recent paper argues that a cat skeleton discovered in a predynastic tomb (ca. 3700 BC) at Hierakonpolis may be evidence for domestication. The cat, apparently a young male, had a broken left humerus and right femur, both of which had healed prior to the cat's death and burial. Reanalysis of this cat has identified the species as Felis chaus, not F. silvestris, however. Late period cats

The first illustration of a cat with a collar appears on an Egyptian tomb in Saqqara, dated to the 5th dynasty (Old Kingdom, ca 2500-2350 BC). By the 12th dynasty (Middle Kingdom, ca 1976-1793 BC), cats are definitely domesticated, and the animals appear frequently in Egyptian art paintings and mummies.

The feline goddesses Mafdet, Mehit and Bastet all date to the Early Dynastic period (although Bastet is not associated with domesticated cats until later). Cats are the most frequently mummified animal in Egypt.

Molecular Evidence for Cat Domestication

A recent study suggests that cats were domesticated at the same time as that of wheat and barley in the Fertile Crescent region, that is about 10,000 years ago. Time will tell--the only archaeological data supporting that is at Shillourokambos in Cyprus. This exciting news is definitely not as far-fetched as it might be, given the role of the cat as the hunter of grain-eating rodents. It's one of those arguments about who may have been more domesticated in this relationship--the cat or the human?

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