It’s not easy to say which cat breeds are the oldest.
The cat fancy itself started in the 1870s. That seems ancient, but many breeds go back much farther.
- Persian cats arrived in Europe from Asia Minor in the 16th century. The tailless Manx may have already been there – no one knows how long it has lived on Britain’s Isle of Man. (Wastlhuber)
- Some cats that resemble modern breeds like the Siamese and Korat appear on Thai records that might be from the 14th or 15th century.
- Bobtailed cats have lived in Japan since the 5th or 6th century. (Kurushima and others, 2012a; Menotti-Raymond and others)
- Natural breeds, like the Chartreux, Egyptian Mau, Norwegian Forest Cat, still have some relatives out in the street or yard that look just like them. No one knows how old these cat lines are. (Menotti-Raymond)
Genetic testing would seem to give the nod to the Egyptian Mau, since moggies in this region have similarities to mummified cats that were sacrificed in the days of the pharaohs. (Kurushima and others, 2012b)
But those street cats have other genetic roots, too.
And wherever there are domestic or feral cats, there are people. Feline-human interactions over time are also important in the development of a natural breed.
Some researchers limit what they call a natural breed to just the Japanese Bobtail, Korat, Manx, Norwegian Forest Cat, Turkish Angora, and Turkish Van. (Menotti-Raymond and others)
Others agree more or less with the Cat Fanciers Association’s count of 16 natural breeds, including (but not limited to):
- The Egyptian Mau
- Burmese, Korat, and Siamese from as early as the 14th century
- The Chartreux, also 14th century
- The Turkish Angora, 15th century
- The Abyssinian, Birman, Manx, Norwegian Forest Cat, Persian, Russian Blue, and Turkish Van from 1868 or earlier, sometimes much earlier
- The Maine Coon from the 1860s
- The British Shorthair, from the 1870s
Those are from Lipinski and others, and Menotti-Raymond and others, with dates supplied by Kurushima and others, 2012a.
It doesn’t add up to 16. As mentioned above, this isn’t easy.
I think the Cat Fanciers Association also considers the American Shorthair a natural breed, while the status of the Siberian and the Japanese Bobtail varies from source to source.
This is just like every other aspect of life in the world of fancy-cats. Something wonderful draws you in, and while things get more and more complex, it’s a lot of fun to try to figure out all these beautiful cats.
Featured image: Korat Yog-Hurt’s Atlach-Nacha at Turok Cat Show, by Heikkisiltala. CC BY 3.0
Kurushima, J. D.; Lipinski, M. J.; Gandolfi, B.; Froenicke, J. C.; Grahn, J. C.; Grahn, R. A.; and Lyons, L. A. 2012a. Variation of cats under domestication: genetic assignment of domestic cats to breeds and worldwide random-bred populations. Animal Genetics. 44:311-324.
Kurushima, J. D.; Ikram. S.; Knudsen, J.; Bielberg, E.; and others. 2012a. Cats of the pharaohs: Genetic comparison of Egyptian cat mummies to their feline contemporaries. Journal of Archaeological Science. 39(10):3217-3223.
Lipinski, M. J.; Froenicke, L.; Baysac, K. C.; Billings, N. C.; and others. 2008. The ascent of cat breeds: genetic evaluation of breeds and worldwide random bred populations. Genomics. 91(1):12-21.
Menotti-Raymond, M.; David, V.; Pflueger, S.; Lindblad-Toh, K.; and others. 2008. Patterns of molecular genetic variation among cat breeds. Genomics. 91:1-11.
Wastlhuber, J. 1991. History of domestic cats and cat breeds, in Feline Husbandry, ed. Pedersen, N. C., 1-59. Goleta, California: American Veterinary Publications.