Domestic cats evolved uniquely compared to other domestic animal species. Cats only became useful to people when we began to settle down and store surplus crops. Humans may, at first, have simply tolerated and then actively encouraged the cats to hang around and essentially guard those stores. Over time, people favored cats with more docile traits. Certain cats adapted to this new environment, eventually producing the dozens of breeds of house cats known today.
There are two main difficulties inherent in determining when and how the cat was first domesticated: one is that–unlike many other species–domesticated cats interbreed with their feral cousins, and two is that sociability is the primary indicator of animal domestication–and we all know how selectively social cats can be! Domestic cats are identified archaeologically by their relatively small size (compared to feral cats), their presence outside of their normal range, and any indication of collars or proper burials.
Genetic analysis suggests that all domestic cats are descended from at least five founder cats of the Middle Eastern wildcat, Felis sylvestris (of which there are several distinct subspecies). Some authors speculate that the domestication process began up to 12,000 years ago. While 12,000 years ago might seem a bold estimate, it is actually a perfectly logical one, since that is precisely when the first agricultural societies began to flourish in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent.
The oldest archaeological evidence for domesticated cats is found on the Greek island of Cyprus, where there is a 9,500 year old burial site in which a cat had been deliberately buried with a human. The Egyptians are known for a life with cats, and the first illustration of a cat with a collar appears on an Egyptian tomb dated to 2,500-2,350 BC.
Ancient Germans became acquainted with cats through the Roman Empire. In ancient German Mythology, feral cats pulled the chariot of the Goddess Freya. During the Early Middle Ages, domestic cats became less popular and were even condemned by the Church, who declared the cat to be a creature of the devil. Sadly, thousands of cats were burned on pyres, often times with women accused of being witches.
In modern times, domestic cats have grown to become the most popular pet in both the United States and Canada. And, while our cats certainly love to get into trouble, they are certainly not devils!
Thank you for reading, and enjoy the rest of this beautiful Spring!