Where Were Cats Domesticated?

Ancient Egypt! So the story goes, and it’s backed up by 4,000-year-old tomb paintings and millions of cat mummies from the first millennium BC (1000 BC to Year Zero).

But in 2012 AD, researchers reported (Kurushima and others) that their molecular studies of African wildcats and feline mummies showed that domestication happened 2,000 to 7,000 years before those cats were mummified.

If the “7,000” figure is correct – add another thousand years to get to Year Zero – then two thousand more to get to today – that brings us back to 10,000 years ago, shortly after the last ice age ended and nomads in the Fertile Crescent settled down and began to farm and keep animals.

Back then, there was no Egypt. Nothing at all spectacular was happening in the Nile River valley. There were just the same small farms and villages that were also springing up along the eastern Mediterranean coast, which would soon become Canaan/Phoenicia.

Things were much the same on plains north and east of the great sea’s eastern shores. People were busy laying the foundations of Mesopotamia’s many cultures and civilizations.

So, where were the cats?

It’s hard to say. Writing wasn’t a thing 10,000 years ago. When somebody finally invented it, writers didn’t mention cats at first, at least not in what has been translated so far.

Sometimes, though, you can go by context. Between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, people and cats were occasionally buried deliberately near one another in Cypress.

Those were probably pets.

And 8,000-year-old cat remains have been found in the town of Jericho, a former nomad base camp. Unfortunately, nothing indicates whether this urban cat was a pet or a scavenging wildcat.

Over the next couple thousand years, someone in Israel or Jordan would occasionally make rock paintings or little statues that resembled cats, but these animals were never in a domestic setting.

Cats were around, though, and they were probably traveling with people. Molecular evidence shows they reached southeastern Europe by 4400 BC, though it doesn’t track them beyond there.

In about 4000 BC, an artisan in Upper Egypt was buried with a cat and a small gazelle. Were those pets, or was it done for some religious reason?

This wasn’t the ancient Egypt we all know and love. The dynasties would come about a thousand years later, when kings united Upper and Lower Egypt.

A lion-headed goddess – Bastet – appeared in Egypt around 2800 BC, a few centuries before the pyramids and Great Sphinx were built at Giza.

She didn’t become very popular until 950 BC, when people from the city of Bubastis, near the Nile Delta, became important in Egyptian politics.

Meanwhile, in the secular world far from Egypt, cats showed up in the city of Uruk, a major trading center in Mesopotamia, not far from the Persian Gulf.

They were smaller than wildcats and might have been domesticated (since dwarfing is a sign of domestication). However, anyone who has ever tried to pick up a Maine Coon knows that domestic cats are not always little.

By 2100 BC, Egypt was a major eastern Mediterranean trading power. Cats could have been brought in by land or sea. Most authorities say they arrived in Egypt from either Ethiopia or Libya.

They were a big hit. A new hieroglyph – “miw” – appeared. It featured a seated cat.

Ra, the focus of state religion at this point, developed a tomcat aspect called Mau that fought a giant demon-snake every night.

From now on, cats were mentioned more frequently in Egyptian writing, and they were shown more often in tomb paintings, either in a household or accompanying the family on a hunt.

Some experts doubt that cats could have been trained as retrievers. However, Han-era Chinese tomb paintings show cats seated behind the rider on horseback during a hunt, just like cheetahs. Maybe we’re not using the right approach.

Around 1500 BC, a common tomb art trope was the cat under a woman’s chair. There might be a dog under the man’s chair, and perhaps a kitten in his lap.

As mentioned, the cult of Bastet became very popular in Bubastis around 950 BC.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of worshippers would come to the temple there for a three-day festival. Most of them wanted to offer Bastet a votive cat mummy.

There weren’t that many dead cats around, especially not in a culture that now treated cats in much the same way that modern Hindus treat sacred cows.

Apparently Bastet’s priests were exempt from the laws prohibiting cat murder. They set up catteries at the temple, sacrificed the cat when it was around two years old, and mummified it.

This strangely dualistic human attitude toward cats – in Egypt’s case, worshiping them and raising them for slaughter – certainly has continued on down through history.

Many researchers say that temple catteries were responsible for completing the cat’s domestication.

For the first time ever, former wildcats were now forced to live together. Too, priests selectively bred them, not for appearance (ancient Egyptian cats were striped tabbies like the wildcat), but for calmness and the ability to cope with group living.

Such intensive breeding must have had a strong influence on how domestic cats developed. But it is difficult to refute molecular evidence that the cats were already domesticated at that point.

Did domestication happen on Cyprus? In Jericho or some other neolithic base-camp-turned-town? Perhaps in the big urban trading hub that was Uruk?

All we know for sure is that human beings and the domestic cat have known each other for a very long time.

Featured image: Cat head sculpture: Alex Dumal at Pixabay.

Great Sphinx and two pyramids at Giza: Cezzare at Pixabay.

Cat and bird in a tomb painting. Koala Park Laundromat at Pixabay.


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Vigne, J-D; Evin, A.; Cucchi, T.; Dai, L.; and others. 2016. Earliest “domestic” cats in China identified as leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). PLoS ONE. 11:(1):e0147295.

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