Domestic cats are everywhere in today’s world. As I sit here at my computer with my 2 beautiful cats sleeping soundly beside me, it is difficult to imagine a time when the lives humans and cats were not intertwined. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be the first person to realize that cats and humans could be a great team?
Digging Up the Evidence
Archaeologists are hard at work trying to find out when and where the domestication of cats first took place. For a long time it was believed that the first domestication of cats was in Ancient Egypt during the time of the pharaohs. The evidence supporting this was the presence of mummified cats that were buried along with humans (dating to 330 B.C.).
That theory was rattled in 2004 when a cat was discovered buried with a human on the island of Cyprus. This evidence proved to be 9,500 years old! Since cats are not likely to have been indigenous to Cyprus, scientists believe that humans brought cats to the island intentionally.
The Ancient Chinese also domesticated cats (though not earlier than the people in Cyprus); a group of archaeologists found 5,300 year old cat bones in China in 2013. Here testing of the bones revealed that the cats had been fed a diet high in grain which suggested that the farmers had been feeding the cats.
News That’s Really Old
The latest archaeological find was the complete skeletons of 6 cats in a cemetery in Hierokonpolis, Egypt. Before the time of the pharaohs, Hierokonpolis had been the wealthy capitol city of Egypt. It is likely that the cats were buried as a part of a religious ritual. These skeletons date to sometime between 3600 B.C. and 3800 B.C. That is a full 2,000 years before the earliest known evidence of cat domestication in Egypt.
The cats were found grouped closely together in a shallow pit. Of the 6 cat skeletons found, 2 were adults (1 male, 1 female) and 4 were kittens. At their time of death, the adult male was a little less than a year old, the adult female was a little over a year old, and the kittens were 4 and 5 months old. Since the kittens were so close in age, they were not from the same mother.
From Wildcat to Domestic Cat
A careful study of the cats’ bone structures suggests that they were Felis Silvestris – a wild cat common to Africa, Europe and Central Asia. These wildcats look much like domestic cats, but they are a bit larger with a proportionally larger head, longer legs, and longer tail. They are closely related to the Scottish Wildcat which I talked about in my post on the Celtic Cait Sidhe .
Normally in Egypt, the Felis Silvestris would only have 1 litter of kittens per year due to the seasonal availability of food. Scientists believe that the adult female could not have birthed those kittens because she was too young to have 4 or 5 month old kittens (she would have needed to be 16-17 months old). Since the difference between the ages of the adult cats and the kittens was less than the 1 year needed to produce a new litter, this shows that 2 reproductive cycles must have happened in 1 year (1 litter producing the adults and another litter producing the kittens). This suggests that humans were supplying the cats with food which allowed the cats to have a 2nd litter in 1 year.
Could the Egyptians have been the first to domesticate cats after all? Is there more to be found in Cyprus? Archaeologists are now looking at the possibility that rather than having one culture domesticate cats and spread the idea to other cultures, that 2 or more cultures began domesticating cats independent of one another.