If you ever stumble upon one of those countless websites solely dedicated to cat wisdom, you'll come across quotes like these: "Everyone who owns a cat knows that no one truly owns a cat" (credited to Ellen Perry Berkeley), "Calling a cat 'domestic' is a contradiction in terms" (credited to George F. Will), and "A dog is a man's best friend. A cat is a cat's best friend" (credited to Robert J. Vogel). Now, we all know that domestic cats exist, and cats and humans have been in a mostly symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. However, these witty remarks shed light on a genuine ambivalence that has characterized the long-standing connection between cats and humans, as revealed in the history of our feline companions.
The Mystery Behind the Ancient House Cat
It's taken quite some time for scientists to unravel the mystery of when and where cats were first domesticated. You'd think that the archaeological record would provide a straightforward answer, but the similarity between the skeletons of wild and domesticated cats has made things complicated. However, some intriguing clues started emerging in 1983 from the island of Cyprus. Archaeologists discovered an 8,000-year-old cat's jawbone there. Considering the unlikelihood of humans willingly bringing wild cats along during their voyage (after all, having a fierce and untamed feline onboard would be far from ideal, as Desmond Morris humorously points out in his book Catworld: A Feline Encyclopedia), this finding suggested that domestication had occurred even earlier than 8,000 years ago.
Then, in 2004, another groundbreaking discovery on Cyprus further cemented the notion of domesticated cats. At this site, archaeologists uncovered evidence of a cat intentionally buried alongside a human. This finding pushed back the timeline of domestication by at least an additional 1,500 years.
More recently, just last month, a study published in the research journal Science provided further insights into the puzzle of cat domestication through genetic analysis. According to the authors, all domestic cats can trace their ancestry back to a wildcat species called Felis sylvestris, which translates to "cat of the woods." This wildcat, native to the Middle East, is the ancestor of our beloved domestic felines. The study authors even speculate that the domestication process may have commenced as early as 12,000 years ago in the Near East.
A Pet of Many Civilizations
Although estimating domestication around 12,000 years ago may initially seem audacious, it is actually quite logical when considering the rise of agricultural societies in the Middle East's Fertile Crescent during that period.
In the past, when humans were primarily hunters, dogs proved to be immensely useful and were domesticated long before cats. Cats, on the other hand, only became valuable to humans when we transitioned to a sedentary lifestyle, cultivating crops and, notably, storing surplus produce. The advent of grain stores attracted mice, and when the first wild cats ventured into these settlements, the foundation was laid for what the authors of the Science study refer to as "one of the most successful 'biological experiments' ever undertaken." The cats reveled in the abundance of prey in the storehouses, and people reveled in their pest-control capabilities.
"We believe that what happened is that the cats essentially domesticated themselves," explained Carlos Driscoll, one of the study's authors, in an interview with the Washington Post. The cats took it upon themselves to join the human communities, and as time passed, as people favored cats with more amiable traits, certain felines adapted to this new environment, ultimately giving rise to the diverse array of house cat breeds we know today. In the United States, cats have become the most popular household pets, with around 90 million domesticated cats elegantly prowling through approximately 34 percent of American homes.
Gods and Devils: The Cat Throughout History
The ancient Egyptians' profound reverence for cats is widely known and backed by abundant archaeological evidence. In the Beni-Hassan region, scientists discovered a cemetery teeming with 300,000 cat mummies. Bastet, the Egyptian goddess of love, even had a feline head, and in Egypt, being found guilty of killing a cat often resulted in a death sentence for the perpetrator.
The ancient Romans also held cats in high regard, albeit with a more subdued and secularized approach, viewing them as symbols of freedom. In the Far East, cats were highly valued for their role in protecting precious manuscripts from rodents.
Curiously, during the Middle Ages, cats were demonized in Europe. Many people associated them with witches and the devil, leading to widespread persecution and the killing of cats in an attempt to ward off evil (ironically aiding the spread of the plague carried by rats). It wasn't until the 1600s that the public perception of cats began to shift positively in the Western world.
The House Cat Today
In modern times, cats have become superstars, adorning comic strips and starring in television shows. By the mid-1990s, cat-related services and products had evolved into a billion-dollar industry. However, even in our popular culture, traces of the age-old ambivalence towards cats persist. The feline species seems unable to shed its association with malevolence completely. After all, how often do we witness a movie's maniacal arch-villain while lounging comfortably in a chair and plotting the world's destruction, gently stroking the head of a Golden Retriever?
There are however more sweet-natured cats and kittens than those suitable for evil villains in need of homes at your local shelter. So, if you’ve been considering following the path led by so many others throughout time and are looking to welcome a new cat into your home, please consider adopting.
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