- Unlike other domesticated creatures, the house cat contributes little to human survival. Researchers have therefore wondered how and why cats came to live among people.
- Experts traditionally thought that the Egyptians were the first to domesticate the cat, some 3,600 years ago.
- But recent genetic and archaeological discoveries indicate that cat domestication began in the Fertile Crescent, perhaps around 10,000 years ago, when agriculture was getting under way.
- The findings suggest that cats started making themselves at home around people to take advantage of the mice and food scraps found in their settlements.
- To get a bead on when the taming of the cat began, we turned to the archaeological record. One recent find has proved especially informative in this regard. In 2004 Jean-Denis Vigne of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and his colleagues reported unearthing the earliest evidence suggestive of humans keeping cats as pets. The discovery comes from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where 9,500 years ago an adult human of unknown gender was laid to rest in a shallow grave. An assortment of items accompanied the body—stone tools, a lump of iron oxide, a handful of seashells and, in its own tiny grave just 40 centimeters away, an eight-month-old cat, its body oriented in the same westward direction as the human’s. Because cats are not native to most Mediterranean islands, we know that people must have brought them over by boat, probably from the adjacent Levantine coast. Together the transport of cats to the island and the burial of the human with a cat indicate that people had a special, intentional relationship with cats nearly 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. This locale is consistent with the geographic origin we arrived at through our genetic analyses. It appears, then, that cats were being tamed just as humankind was establishing the first settlements in the part of the Middle East known as the Fertile Crescent.
- Although the exact timeline of cat domestication remains uncertain, long-known archaeological evidence affords some insight into the process. After the Cypriot find, the next oldest hints of an association between humans and cats are a feline molar tooth from an archaeological deposit in Israel dating to roughly 9,000 years ago and another tooth from Pakistan dating to around 4,000 years ago. Testament to full domestication comes from a much later period. A nearly 3,700-year-old ivory cat [c. 1700 BCE] statuette from Israel suggests the cat was a common sight around homes and villages in the Fertile Crescent before its introduction to Egypt. [Baloney!] This scenario makes sense, given that all the other domestic animals (except the donkey) and plants were introduced to the Nile Valley from the Fertile Crescent. But it is Egyptian paintings from the so-called New Kingdom period—Egypt’s golden era, which began nearly 3,600 years ago [c. 1500 BCE - after the Hyksos were kicked out rulership]—that provide the oldest known unmistakable depictions of full domestication. These paintings typically show cats poised under chairs, sometimes collared or tethered, and often eating from bowls or feeding on scraps. The abundance of these illustrations signifies that cats had become common members of Egyptian households by this time.
[Well known associations of the lion with the ancient Egyptian Sun God, RA, and the association of the lioness or lion-headed goddess as one of the "Eyes of Ra" - Sekhmet, an aspect of equally ancient Goddess Het-Hert (Hathor) indicate a much older association between the ancient Egyptians and cats. As far as I am aware, both of these deities pre-date the founding of the dynastic period in ancient Egypt, c. 3500-3400 BCE and are therefore at least 5500 to 5400 years old, and quite possibly older. See, for instance, this information from the Louvre Museum indicating that the bones of a cat were discovered in a predynastic tomb dating to around 4000 BCE - that is, about 6000 years ago].