Cats and People: Children of the Ice Age


Just how far back do people and the ancestors of domestic cats go? All the way back to Plio-Pleistocene times, when the ice ages began.

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The Cat Domestication Two-Step

No one knows for sure how cats were domesticated.

The first clear evidence of domestic cats is in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings that are almost four thousand years old. However, findings elsewhere suggest that cats have associated with us since the Stone Age. (Bernstein and Friedmann)

It’s anybody’s guess what happened between the burials of a high-status human and an eight-month-old cat on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus 9,500 years ago (Vigne and others) and a housecat portrait done around 1950 BC for the tomb of Baket III in Egypt. (Serpell)

However, on the other side of Asia, the residents of a Neolithic village in central China did domesticate a small Asian spotted cat. (Grimm)

This only lasted a few hundred years, until the village disappeared. (Hu and others)

People like to keep pets of all sorts. (Serpell) Perhaps Stone Age people along the Mediterranean kept wildcats as pets as well as mousers.

Then domestication “took” with these cats because the human civilization lasted longer.

Also, breeding cats for the Egyptian temples could have fixed the “domestic” genes that had enabled them to approach people in the first place.

So house cat domestication might have happened in two stages, with cats first kept as Stone-Age pets and then shaped by the ancient Egyptians into a breed distinct from their wild relatives.

Featured image: Domestic cat, by gabio. Public domain.

Bernstein, P. L., and Friedmann, E. 2014. Social behaviour of domestic cats in the human home, in The Domestic Cat: The Biology of its Behaviour, eds Turner, D. C., and Bateson, P., 71-80. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Grimm, D. 2016. Were cats domesticated more than once? . Accessed April 28, 2017.

Hu, Y.; Hu, S.; Wang, W.; Wu, X.; and others. 2014. Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 111(1):116-120.

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., 83-100. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Van Neer, W.; Linseele, V.; Friedman, R.; and De Cupere, B. 2014. More evidence for cat taming at the Predynastic elite cemetary of Hierakonpolis (Upper Egypt). Journal of Archaeological Science. 45:103-111.

Vigne, J. D.; Guilane, J.; Debue, K.; Haye, L.; and Gérard, P. 2004. Early taming of the cat in Cyprus. Science. 304(5668):259.