Am making good progress on the final draft of “50 Facts About Domestic Cats (And Where They Come From).” This is Fact #14. Thanks for your interest and patience!
When Linnaeus set out to classify all life on Earth back in the late 18th century–you have to admire the man’s “can-do” attitude–he named the whole cat family Felis after its most popular member, the domestic cat.
He was Swedish but wrote in Latin–a language that scientists still use for what’s now called Linnaean classification. This system includes a genus name like Felis followed by a species name, say, leo for lions.
Down through the centuries, zoologists have broken down that very broad Felis category as they learned more about the various cats and how each group evolved. There are still some controversies, but almost everyone agrees on these genus names:
- Acinonyx (cheetah)
- Neofelis (clouded leopards)
- Panthera (the big cats). Lions are now Panthera leo
At the time of writing, there are at least nine other cat groups, depending on which authority you check. The house cat is well settled into Felis and it has four other adorable (but very wild) little companions.
Why “Felis”? Why not “cattus”?
Short answer: Actually, ancient Romans used both words. Perhaps Linnaeus went with “Felis” because another great scholar with a can-do attitude–Pliny the Elder–used it in his late-first-century master work The Natural History.
Details: There will always be mysteries about the house cat. One such puzzle is where cats went right after they left Egypt.
We do know that they first became popular in Greece, where domestic cats, feral cats, and wildcats were all lumped together as “ailouros,” or “waggy tail.”
The first known mention of domestic cats in writing is in Aesop’s Fables.
Aesop was a real person, a Greek slave living on Samos Island in the 6th century BC. He may have included at least one cat in his fables, but no more than that. Yes, there are a lot of kitties in there now, but other writers revised it as time went by, changing words or even adding their own fables, until it became set into the form we know today.
In the original, most of what are now called cats were ferrets. Apparently writers who tackled the Fables after Aesop couldn’t believe that Greeks and Romans had used ferrets and other weasel-like animals for rodent control back in the day.
But that’s exactly what happened. No one sat around for millennia, drowning in
tribbles mice, until Ancient Egypt released its furry little gods. They used weasels and similar animals. Of these, ferrets were the best.
Early in the 1st century AD, one of the Romans translating Aesop’s Fables from the original Greek used the word “feles” in “The Eagle, the Cat, and the Wild Sow” (“felis” is the version of this noun that has stuck). He was talking about a cat.
“Feles” is related to “Felix” and other words associated with happiness and cuteness, like a popular Roman girl’s name, Felicia (“kitten”). Latin blends things together just like English and other languages do.
“Feles” was probably a common name for cats by now. Egypt was a Roman province and cats were certainly known in the Empire. And words linked to cats all had upbeat meanings because these new little animals were associated with the gods, just as they had been in the days of the pharoahs.
Shortly after this fabled “feles” appeared in writing, Pliny the Elder was finishing up The Natural History, in which he described two kinds of “weasel,” one of which he called Felis. (Pliny the Elder died in the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius before the work was finalized, but it was published anyway.)
It still took almost three more centuries after that for someone to point out that cats are better than ferrets at rodent control! And the word they used was “cattus.”
This term is probably, according to Engels (see source list below), a corruption of the very old north African Berber word “kaddiska,” meaning “cat.” The very first known use of “cattus” was in 144 AD, as the name of a Praetorian Guard unit. (Yes, cats always were very popular with Roman soldiers).
What are the other Felis cats and what’s their connection to our pet?
- Wildcats (Felis silvestris)
- Sand cats (Felis margarita)
- Black-footed cats (Felis nigripes)
- Jungle cats (Felis chaus)
Wildcats are closely related; the African wildcat got domesticated. The other three are more distant relatives, but all Felis cats share a roughly 3-million-year-old common ancestor.
Details: We can’t go into much detail here. There is too much of it; also wildcats show up elsewhere in this book because of their close connection with Fluffy. In addition, all four of these elusive small cats are described in the next ebook in this series: 50 Facts About the Modern Cat Family (And Where It Comes From).
For now, let’s just say this:
- Wildcat: Found in most of Africa and Europe and in parts of Asia. Their appearance is either shaggy-coated and sturdy or long-legged and athletic–it varies across their range. Endangered status: Red-listed but least concern. Source and more information: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/60354712/0
- Sand cat: Found in northern Africa and parts of the Near East; the only cat that calls the desert home. Endangered status: Red-listed but least concern. Source and more information: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/8541/0
- Black-footed cat: Only found in the Karoo and Kalahari regions of southern Africa. One of the smallest cats in the world. Endangered status: Vulnerable. Source and more information: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/8542/0
- Jungle cat, a/k/a reed or swamp cat: Most common cat species in southern Asia, but getting rarer in Southeast Asia. Used in developing the wild/domestic fancy cat breed called the Chausie. Endangered status: Red-listed, but least concern. Source and more information: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/8540/0
As for the history of the Felis lineage, the cat-family fossil record is very difficult to read. Per one widely respected hypothesis, ancestors of Felis first appeared 6-7 million years ago in Asia and began to spread out into the Old World.
They may have been native to Asia or immigrants from North America.
Then, a little over 3 million years ago, the modern lineage developed. There were only four groups to begin with, but around 10,000 years ago, a wildcat approached farming settlements in the Fertile Crescent and our shared saga of domestication began.
Featured image: Sand cat, by Squeezyboy. CC BY 2.0.
Engels, D. W. 2015. Classical cats: the rise and fall of the sacred cat. Ebook retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=NwkeCwAAQBAJ
Hamilton, E. 1896. The wild cat of Europe (Felix catus). R. H. Porter. Ebook retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=Z-VaAAAAQAAJ
Johnson, W. E.; Eizirik, E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Murphy, W. J.; and others. 2006. The Late Miocene Radiation of Modern Felidae: A Genetic Assessment. Science, 311: 73-77.
Kitchener, A. C.; Breitenmoser-Würsten, C.; Eizirik, E.; Gentry, A.; and others. 2017. A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/32616/A_revised_Felidae_Taxonomy_CatNews.pdf
Serpell, J. A. 2014. Domestication and history of the cat, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P. New York: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=m-NRAgAAQBAJ
Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.