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Origin of Domestic Cats

Updated on July 26, 2012
Tsunami (left), Arwen (right) and Winston (centre)
Tsunami (left), Arwen (right) and Winston (centre) | Source

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Cats became domesticated for very different reasons than dogs. Their desire to form an alliance with humans stemmed from mutual benefit. We provided an easy source of food and they became our exterminators. Even today, our three felines are terrific mousers, keeping the mouse populations down to a bare minimum in our very old century farmhouse. Although they provide love, affection and entertainment to us on their terms only, they still have not lost the hunting prowess of their ancient forebearers.

There is something to the famous line, "Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you later." - Mary Bly

I believe there is some truth to the belief that cats domesticated the human race as opposed to the other way around. My three sons were each able to adopt a cat (never ever take three boys and try to come home with only two kittens!). My oldest son chose Arwen, Jarod my middle son picked Tsunami and my youngest chose the only male, Winston. Little did we know that within the year, the cats decided themselves to whom they showed their allegiance. Winston decided that the young boy who chose him was a wise companion to keep. Arwen and Tsunami on the other hand did not remain true. To this day, Arwen prefers to sleep with Jarod. Jarod was the person she adopted while Tsunami adopted Connor as her favourite companion. Our two dogs treat everyone in the house as part of their pack and constantly crave our attention. The three cats on the other hand come to us when they need water or food or perhaps to get their head rubbed. At night, if Tsunami cannot find Connor to sleep with, we all hear her wailing and suffer the consequences.

"Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed...the Great Cat." - Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Since the Late Period the Egyptians gave animal mummies as gifts to the gods. These animals were bred near the temples. Cats were popular in Egypt and were associated with the goddess Bastet.  Circa between 664 and 350 BC (Late Period)Central panel of a floor mosaic with a cat and two ducks. Opus vermiculatum, Roman artwork of the late Republican era, first quarter of the 1st century BC.
Since the Late Period the Egyptians gave animal mummies as gifts to the gods. These animals were bred near the temples.
Since the Late Period the Egyptians gave animal mummies as gifts to the gods. These animals were bred near the temples. | Source
Cats were popular in Egypt and were associated with the goddess Bastet.  Circa between 664 and 350 BC (Late Period)
Cats were popular in Egypt and were associated with the goddess Bastet. Circa between 664 and 350 BC (Late Period) | Source
Central panel of a floor mosaic with a cat and two ducks. Opus vermiculatum, Roman artwork of the late Republican era, first quarter of the 1st century BC.
Central panel of a floor mosaic with a cat and two ducks. Opus vermiculatum, Roman artwork of the late Republican era, first quarter of the 1st century BC. | Source

The Cat in History

Initially, it was thought that the Egyptians first domesticated the cat around 2000 to 1900 BC.

  • It is believed by some experts that by this time Egyptians had already produced a distinct species of cat suggesting that domestication by Egyptians may have happened earlier than previously thought.
  • Indeed, the first illustration of a cat wearing a collar was found on an Egyptian tomb in Saggara dating from 2500 to 2350 BC.
  • Ancient Egyptians did revere cats attested to by the cat cemetery found in Beni-Hassan containing 300,000 cat mummies.
  • Cats were a prominent figure in Egyptian religion.
  • Feline goddesses were common in Egyptian mythology including Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of love who had the head of a cat, Sekhmet and other deities.
  • Cats also figured prominently in Egyptian art as far back as 4000 years ago.
  • Cats were so revered by the Egyptians that to be convicted of killing a cat in Egypt often meant a death sentence for the guilty party.

Ancient Romans also held reverence for the cat.

  • It was viewed as the God of Liberty and was the only animal allowed in Roman temples.
  • They were kept as mascots by the Roman army and were spread to conquered countries via Roman occupation.

Peoples of the Far East treasured cats due to the protection they provided to treasured manuscripts from rodents.

"The cat has always been associated with the moon. Like the moon it comes to life at night, escaping from humanity and wandering over housetops with its eyes beaming out through the darkness." - Patricia Dale-Green

In the Middle Ages, cats seemed to lose their status as revered and became instead demonized in Europe at least.

  • Their nocturnal habits or their sexuality may have created an association of cats with the devil and witchcraft.
  • People who had pet cats were often tried and tortured as witches.
  • Cats themselves were often put on trial and tortured and killed as witches.
  • It was considered at the time, good luck, to bury a cat in the wall of a new building.
  • It is very likely that the spread of the bubonic plague was hastened by the decimation of the cat population at that time, as cats were effective exterminators of the rats that carried the plague through their fleas.

"I think all cats are wild. They only act tame if there's a saucer of milk in it for them." - Douglas Adams, discussing feral cats in Last Chance to See (1991)

This map shows the location and extent of the Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East incorporating Ancient Egypt; the Levant; and Mesopotamia.
This map shows the location and extent of the Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East incorporating Ancient Egypt; the Levant; and Mesopotamia. | Source

Theory Proposing the Origin of Cats

Dogs were useful to humans when they were hunter-gatherers which explains why their domestication preceeds that of cats. Cats became useful to mankind at the dawn of agricultural civilization, in the Fertile Crescent, when humans remained in one place for long periods of time and tilled the earth to lay down stores of surplus food. Stored food led to rodents being attracted to these storehouses. Naturally, felines were attracted to the abundance of easy prey and humans would have been grateful for the pest control.

  • Since even today it is impossible to keep cats inside without closed windows and doors, it would have been impossible to contain cats in the ancient Fertile Crescent where window openings lacked glass panes to keep the animals in.
  • Thus, people were probably not actively capturing these animals.
  • Ancestors of the wild cat probably domesticated themselves being attracted to the large density of rodents in the human storehouses.
  • Thus, farmers were probably the first domesticators of wildcats.
  • They would have been valued as exterminators of rodents and other pests of farmer's storehouses and fields.
  • It would have been beneficial for the farmers to encourage the presence of these wildcats.
  • As these felines became accustomed to humans, they naturally became household companions also as exterminators of rodents which would also invade the homes of settlements.
  • Gradually, as people favoured cats with more friendly traits, these docile felines adapted to their new niche leading to the dozens of breeds of cat presently known.
  • These cats would have accompanied their humans who gradually spread throughout the ancient world taking the cat along with them.

Map of Felis silvestris subspecies, according to a DNA analysis published in Science (29 june 2007) : « The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication »
Map of Felis silvestris subspecies, according to a DNA analysis published in Science (29 june 2007) : « The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication » | Source

Evolution of the Domestic Cat

Archaeologists have recently discovered the oldest evidence of cat domestication.

  • It is now thought that domestication of the cat began at least 9500 years ago because of the discovery of a cat buried in proximity to a human in a Neolithic grave on the island of Cyprus at the Neolithic village of Shillourokambos.
  • The remains found were of a complete cat skeleton.
  • It was buried about 40 cm from human remains.
  • Because the states of preservation of both the cat and the human were similar and because they were buried so close together, it is suggested that both were purposely buried together.
  • The state of the remains suggest that this eight month old cat was killed to be buried with the human.
  • The recovered remains are from a large cat most closely resembling the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica).
  • Because felines are not native to the island of Cyprus, the implication is that any cats found on the island were introduced by humans.
  • Some researchers have also found evidence including 10,000 year old engravings and pottery depicting cats dating to the late Stone Age, suggesting a much earlier time of domestication for the cat.
  • These ancient finds suggest that the cat already had considerable social and possibly religious significance to these people

It has now been determined from genetic studies that all domestic cats are descended from the Middle Eastern wildcat, Felis sylvestris, meaning 'cat of the woods'.

  • Cats were first domesticated in the Near East and it was suggested that the domestication process began about 12,000 years ago coinciding with the appearance of the first human agricultural societies.
  • A more recent study suggests that all cats can trace their lineage back to five female ancestors from this Middle East region.
  • This wildcat obviously had a genetic variance that predisposed some individuals to a more docile nature.
  • This Middle Eastern wildcat can still be found in the deserts of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.
  • Due to the genetic variability discovered when investigating mitochondrial DNA in a huge sample population, it is probable that the ancestors of the domestic cat separated from their wild relatives and began living with humans about 130,000 years ago.
  • It would have taken at least that long to produce the genetic variability present in today's domestic cats.
  • This evidence suggest that perhaps very primitive agricultural settlements existed at that time in the Fertile Crescent.

show route and directions
A markerPareklisia, Cyprus -
Pareklisia, Cyprus
get directions

Site of the late stone age village of Shillourokambos on Cyprus where the oldest known domesticated cat remains were found.

B markerMiddle East -
Middle East
get directions

Place of origin of wildcat ancestor of the domestic cat.

My boys must subconsciously love the mythology of the black cat as lovers of anything frightful! The black cat still has somewhat of a demonic reputation today. Almost never do you see a witch or wizard surrounded by a faithful dog but always present in all witch stories is the companion feline. And many frightening tales have a demonic cat! And yet, the cat is the most popular pet on earth. In houses or apartments they are self-sufficient and cuddly often enough. Their low maintenance makes them ideal for many lifestyles. Throughout history, they have been revered and in many households they are still prized for their independence and grace and for their excellent predatory skill evidence of a wild side still retained from their ancient feline ancestors.

Resources Used

BBC News. DNA traces origin of domestic cat. June 28, 2007.

Handwerk, Brian. National Geographic News. House Cat Origin Traced to Middle Eastern Wildcat Ancestor. June 28, 2007.

Pickrell, John. National Geographic News. Oldest Known Pet Cat? 9,500-Year-Old Burial Found on Cyprus. April 8, 2004.

Rincon, Paul. BBC News. Dig discovery is oldest 'pet cat'. April 8, 2004.

Zax, David. Smithsonian.com. A Brief History of House Cats. July 1, 2007.

Comments

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    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Gypsy Rose, glad you enjoyed this one also. Perhaps you'll see Sid in a new light!

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      epigramman, I am so honoured by this comment. Thanks to you and Miss Tiffy and Mister Gabriel. I'm so glad you all enjoyed the hub. My fall has been wonderful so far although a little cold in the evenings watching my son's football practice. Peterborough area is just beautiful this time of year. But we are moving quickly to the cooler days and I feel winter approaching perhaps a little faster than I would like. Enjoy beautiful Port Dover. It has been a while since I visited. Perhaps a hub meeting would be a great summer event to plan!

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 

      5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Voted up and interesting. Thanks for this fascinating hub. Quite a few things I wasn't aware of. My cat Sid is such a darling. Enjoyed much and passing this on.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 

      5 years ago

      ....well I am so proud of you my fellow Canadian - you are a consummate hubber and this is just a world class presentation - so says my two best friends Little Miss Tiffy and Mister Gabriel - and the 'man' they both own will madly and gladly share this hubbravo work by you with the Hubpages Facebook group so you can hopefully gain more readers and fans (like me) and sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario canada (25 minutes from Port Dover) 4:00pm and how was your fall so far? Of course I always consider November a gateway month .... to winter ..... yikes!

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      iguidenetwork, so happy you enjoyed the history of our feline friends. It certainly put the behaviors of my own kitties into perspective!

    • iguidenetwork profile image

      iguidenetwork 

      5 years ago from Austin, TX

      This hub is evident of an exahaustive research about cats. Excellent article. Voted up and interesting. :)

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      sgbrown, so glad you enjoyed the hub. Thanks for reading and commenting on my work. It is much appreciated!

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Wow JKenny, thanks for the great comment. I am so glad you enjoyed this one as I had so much fun researching it. Our three felines featured on the first picture are a very special part of our family. And they can be a wild bunch.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      5 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Wow! You really did a lot of research on this! Great information and very well written as well. I have never heard anyone really talkl about the history of cats. This is very interesting! Voted up and awesome! Great job!

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Glad you enjoyed this one CCahill. We enjoy our cats in this household along with all of our other wonderful pets!

    • CCahill profile image

      CCahill 

      5 years ago from England

      I've always been curious, great hub! I often forget they bring something to the table too :)

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 

      5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Wow! What a great hub Teresa. Cats are such fascinating creatures- I love how they manage to retain a sense of wildness despite the fact that they have domesticated themselves over the last 10,000 years. The Scottish wildcat a rare subspecies on the other hand is a whole different kettle of fish, it's totally impossible to tame and even captive bred individuals will attack the people who reared them. Amazing to think that they're the same species as the tabby.

      If I could be any other animal rather than a human, then I'd chose a cat every time. I love their sense of freedom and independence. Voted up etc.

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Interesting! BlackandGoldJack, I'm going to have to check out the Tube video myself. I heard of the silver fox domestication experiment that spanned 10 years but I'd not heard of this one! Love the last line about needing' a bigger litter box!

    • BLACKANDGOLDJACK profile image

      Jack Hazen 

      5 years ago from Blitzburgh area

      This is a true story about domesticating a cat. I saw it on FOX yesterday while I was watching a baseball game, and I see it’s on YouTube.

      Frankie Edgar, a famous UFC mixed-martial arts fighter, goes to the zoo with his wife. A tiger gets loose and scares some kids. Frankie jumps on the tiger and subdues it. In the next shot, Frankie is walking the tiger on a leash out of the zoo and says to his wife, “We’re gonna have to get a bigger litter box.”

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Awesome GoForTheJuggler! Glad I could be of help. Its so nice to see a repeat customer. I really enjoyed researching and writing this one as well as my Origin of Dogs hub. Good luck with the project. I hope it turns out as you hope!

    • GoForTheJuggler profile image

      Joshua Patrick 

      5 years ago from Texas

      I just had to come back and comment/vote up again. This is a very well-researched article full of great information. You have no idea how much you've helped me with a project that I've had on the back burner for a while now!

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Cyndi, I agree about the offerings. My oldest son had a mouse left in his bed from his faithful feline Winston. He was not very impressed but didn't let on to Winston of course. I too was fascinated with the history of the cat I uncovered through my research. This series has been a fun one. Since we also have horses I expect they will be the next in the series! So glad you enjoyed the read Cyndi! Keep enjoying your feline friends.

      Lucky Cats, so glad to meet you. Thanks for the wonderful compliments on my hub. They are a beautiful group of animals and we love our animals here on the farm!

    • Lucky Cats profile image

      Kathy 

      5 years ago from The beautiful Napa Valley, California

      Fantastic! Of course, I am totally interested and excited about this subject,.. my favorite! What a complete primer on the history and significance of our feline friends. Comprehensive~! Wonderful! Thank you. UP Awesome Useful Interesting and Beautiful in the complexity and wonder of this beautiful species!!!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      5 years ago from Western NC

      I didn't have a cat until I was 18 (my dad was allergic), but when I was FINALLY able to get one, I've had one ever since. :) I definitely prefer the quiet nature of cats; my husband loves dogs and cats. I like dogs, but I love it when my kitties sleep on my head. Hehehe.

      What an interesting history! I didn't know that it was primarily for their mousing instincts that they began to become domesticated. I'm grateful for mine - I also have an older farm house in the country and the kitties really help keep pests at bay. Though, I don't like it much when they bring us "offerings" hehe. Unlucky is the mouse that finds himself in the vicinity of our two cats.

      Thanks for a very interesting read!

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks again for your support aviannovice. Glad you enjoyed this one.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      You did a lot of great research to get us this information. Awesome and up.

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Blackandgoldjack, interesting reward system for your feline. Don't let him get too fat on too much beer or he will no longer be a useful bat exterminator. Glag you enjoyed the hub.

      GofortheJuggler, I too like both animals for their respective qualities. So glad you enjoyed the reading!

    • GoForTheJuggler profile image

      Joshua Patrick 

      5 years ago from Texas

      Even though dogs are generally more loyal, I love cats just as much. This was a great read - voted up!

    • BLACKANDGOLDJACK profile image

      Jack Hazen 

      5 years ago from Blitzburgh area

      That was really interesting.

      I'm a cat newbie. My teenage daughter adopted a little homeless kitty a little over a year ago and now he's a big bat brat cat. She's going off to college real soon so it will be just me and the cat.

      Not long ago we had a bat in the house. You know, flying around, thinking about changing into a vampire. Well Boo the cat put an end to that. I think he thought it was a flying mouse. I gave him a big glass of beer as a reward instead of his usual shot glass. One of his nicknames is Batman now.

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks so much for the abundant praise CC. I liked the use of quotes in this piece and think I will try it again on another hub. So glad you enjoyed it!

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 

      5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Oh, you KNOW I'm all about this hub! :*)

      What a great job you did compiling kitty history! I love the quotes and the scientific background is compelling. Voted up, awesome, interesting, and useful... and will pin it. Thanks!

    • Teresa Coppens profile imageAUTHOR

      Teresa Coppens 

      5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks Indie. Our little darlings are a bit older now but still adorable. How funny, I too was reminded of Tweety bird and Sylvester the cat and made that same connection. I'm working through the menagerie of pets we have at home. Horses may be next in the series. So glad you enjoyed this one. Thanks so much!

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 

      5 years ago from Northern, California

      How adorable are your three little black cats! I want to pet each one of them! How interesting that kitty cats all descend from the "Felis sylvestris" cat. It is now clear why the cartoon characters are called Sylvester the Cat, and Felix the Cat! ;) You offer SO MUCH great information here, it is like a complete study of domestic cats in a single location! Impressed to say the least, Teresa. Gets my vote!

      HubHugs~

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