The History of the House Cat

Ever wondered how we ended up keeping cats as pets? We were curious, so we decided to investigate the history of the house cat to find out just exactly how (and when) our feline friends made it inside our homes and onto our sofas. 

According to studies, cats existed for thousands of years alongside humans before becoming domesticated. One 2007 study suggested that the process of domestication could have started as long as 12,000 years ago, and that all domesticated cats descend from Middle Eastern wildcats. It was around this time, in the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East, that people started to settle and form agricultural societies, which explains how the relationship between cats and humans began.

 

Cats: The Farmer’s Helper

So cats and humans started existing side by side when we stopped being hunter gatherers and instead settled down to farm the land, forming agricultural societies. With farming comes grain, and with stores of grain come rodents (as even modern day farmers can tell you). Cats and their natural instinct to hunt rodents were therefore helpful creatures to have hanging around, and humans would have at least permitted, if not encouraged, their presence. 

It’s here that scientists believe the relationship between cats and humans began. In true cat style, it’s now believed that cats domesticated themselves, which will come as no surprise to cat parents. After inviting themselves in often enough, cats adapted to have the most people-pleasing traits, eventually becoming the house cats we know today.

 

A Pet Cat On Holiday

We know cats would’ve been welcomed around farmland, but what about in other situations?

In 1983, archaeologists on the island of Cyprus discovered bones belonging to a cat that dated back 8000 years. This is a huge clue when it comes to the timeline of domesticated cats: it’s unlikely that anyone would’ve wanted to share a ship with an angry wildcat, and as an island without a wildcat population of its own, it suggests that any cat taken by ship to Cyprus at this time would have been domesticated already. 

So we can be pretty certain that, 8000 years ago, humans and cats were living (and travelling!) side by side. And this sea-faring cat brings us onto another important role for cats in the lives of humans…

Cats At Sea

It’s possible that this domesticated cat was taken to Cyprus due to the same skills that made cats a favourite of farmers: catching rats and mice. It’s thought that humans took their cats with them along trade routes to control rodents, further adding to the geographic spread of domesticated cats. 

Rodents can damage a ship’s cargo, foodstores, as well as the ropes, woodwork and wiring, so a “ship’s cat” has been keeping sailors company from ancient times up until the 20th century—and there are many well-known ship’s cats throughout history.

 

Cats In Ancient Societies

Thanks to a 2017 study, it’s now believed that the cats of the Middle East around 8000 years ago belonged to a different strain than those inhabiting Egypt. These Egyptian cats were African wildcats that spread from Egypt to the Mediterranean region and beyond. (And their spread beyond Africa was most probably due to their role as ship’s cats!)

The ancient Egyptians’ love for cats is well known, and there are many mummified cats, showing how revered they were by Egyptian society. But the ancient Romans also respected cats, seeing them as a symbol of liberty. 

Cats in Europe

While some ancient societies respected cats, their reputation in Europe took a while to get off the ground. During the middle ages, cats weren’t universally loved—they were often linked to witchcraft and the devil—but from the 1600s onwards, Europeans realised what we all know now: cats are great. 

 

From Wild Cat to House Cat

Despite this long journey from wildcat to pet, the domesticated cats of today haven’t changed much from their original wildcat ancestors. Genetically, they’re almost the same, with one of the only changes being the tabby cat’s distinctive coat, which it’s believed developed during the middle ages.

So, unlike the domestic dog’s journey from wild wolf to tamed pet, cats didn’t have to do much at all to make their way into our homes—which shows that they were pretty much perfect from the start. 

Want to find out more about your cat’s ancient history? Take a closer look at the articles we found while researching:


https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-house-cats-158390681/


https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/domesticated-cats-dna-genetics-pets-science

02/02/2022 by NatuTeam

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