The history of the house cat is complicated. Cats and humans have enjoyed a mostly symbiotic relationship for thousands of years, but both parties experience ambivalence over their association. The snippets of wisdom found on Web sites such as these demonstrate this point quite well: "As every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat" (attributed to Ellen Perry Berkeley); "The phrase 'domestic cat' is an oxymoron" (attributed to George F. Will); and finally, "A dog is a man's best friend. A cat is a cats best friend." Of course, there are domesticated cats in existence today; however, this long-term relationship between them and humans has been more difficult than we may think at first glance- take these quotes from those who claim that owning or being owned by felines are oxymorons!
Scientists have been piecing together when and where cats became domesticated. We might think that finding clues in the archaeological record would solve this question, but wild cat skeletons resemble those of domesticated ones, muddying up our understanding. Some significant findings came from Cyprus in 1983- an 8,000-year-old cat jawbone was found there, suggesting that domestication occurred before then.
The reason why the cat-human relationship is more specific than ever can be traced back to 2004 and an even older site in Cyprus. Last month a study published in the research journal Science secured more information based on genetic analyses: all domestic cats are descended from Middle Eastern wildcats who lived 12,000 years ago! This discovery pushed cat domestication back at least another 1500 years, and it made it clear that ancient Cypriot cats were tamed.
Nearly 3,000 years before the date of the Cyprus tomb's cat—that is to say, 12,000 years ago—the first agricultural societies began to flourish in what is known as the Fertile Crescent.
Humans domesticated dogs long before cats because they were helpful to hunters. With our settling down and farming, mice became a problem in the grain stores, which led to cats becoming more valuable than ever-they dealt with the mouse infestation! The Science study authors call this "one of the most successful biological experiments." Cats were delighted about all these new prey opportunities; people felt relieved about their pest control.
Research conducted by Carlos Driscoll and his team suggests that cats domesticated themselves. The study found that most house cats were descendants of wild Egyptian desert dwellers who snuck into the homes of ancient Egyptians about 8,000 years ago. There are 90 million domestic cat pets in the US, with 34% or one-third being in their own home.
Cats seem uninterested in us, as the quotations from cat-related websites indicate. This may reflect the mixed feelings humans have shown towards cats over time.
The ancient Egyptian reverence for cats is well-known and documented in the archaeological record. The goddess Bastet had a cat's head, and to be convicted of killing a cat might mean death as punishment for an offender. Scientists have found a cat cemetery in Beni-Hassan full of 300,000 cat mummies. In Rome, people held similar esteem to cats, but it was more tempered than what Egyptians showed their beliefs about this animal; only that they were seen as symbols of liberty (a sign which indicated independence from the authoritarian rule).
There are many reasons cats came to be demonized in Europe during the Middle Ages. Many Europeans saw them as being affiliated with witches and the devil and as downright evil. To ward off this supposed evil, many cats were killed- an action that scholars believe ironically helped spread the plague (which was carried by rats). It wasn't until the 1660s that public opinion about cats started turning around in Western society.
Nowadays, cats are superstars. They appear in comic strips, television shows, and movies as protagonists. Yet there is an age-old ambivalence that remains in this popular culture; the cat doesn't seem to be able to shake its association with evil completely: you seldom see a movie's maniacal arch-villain stroke the head of a Golden Retriever!