“Little one, I would like to see anyone—prophet, king or God—persuade a thousand cats to do anything at the same time.” —Neil Gaiman, Sandman No. 18
In A Nutshell
For a long time, it’s been pretty well accepted that cats were first domesticated by the ancient Egyptians, who raised them to nearly god-like status. Now, however, we know that the relationship between cats and humans goes back even farther than that. Archaeological evidence has shown that cats and humans lived together in China at least 5,300 years ago, and the contents of a grave on Cyprus have shown that the relationship may date back even further.
The Whole Bushel
Cats are one of the world’s favorite pets, found living the good life alongside humans across the globe. Unlike dogs, however, their past has been a little bit more of a mystery. We know about when dogs were domesticated, we know how, and we know how we created the many, many different breeds we see today. Cats, however, a little more enigmatic.
One of the biggest milestones in the history of the cat-human relationship has always been their treatment as elevated pets in ancient Egypt. As long as 4,000 years ago, they were not only living alongside humans, but they were cherished by them. And for a long time, that’s where we thought it all started.
Until an excavation in the Chinese village of Quanhuccun revealed a slightly different, much older story.
An examination of bones from several cats found in the ancient village revealed something startling—especially considering it wasn’t thought that cats were domesticated in China until about 2,000 years ago. The bones are approximately 5,300 years old, and they tell a story that’s much more complicated than just the life of a wild cat.
Testing the cats’ bones revealed much more than just the time that they lived, it revealed something about their diet, too. By measuring the isotopes present in the bones, researchers got a feel for what the cats were eating, and part of the finding substantiated what’s largely been thought about how cats and humans first got together. Once humans settled into farming and agricultural communities, they started to store grain and other crops. This, in turn, attracted mice, rats, and other pests. When humans realized that the cats were invaluable at keeping these pests down to a manageable number, a partnership was born and they started wanting to keep the cats around. Suddenly, the cats were no longer pests themselves.
In addition to finding trace evidence in the cats’ bones that suggested they were eating animals that fed on the humans’ domesticated crops, it was found that some of them were also eating the crops themselves. This suggests that the pests were under control (they had been confirmed to be a problem, with the finding of ancient burrows and rat-proof storage), and that people had started feeding the cats to keep them around.
One of the cats was old, much older than a cat would be expected to live in the wild. That only adds more support to the idea that people were looking after the cats, even if they weren’t necessarily letting them sleep at the end of the bed at night.
The findings fill in a massive gap in the timeline of the domestication process of our feline friends. It’s still not a complete history, though, as other research has shown that today’s domestic cats are mostly descended from a species of Near East wild cat.
To make things even more complicated, there have also been findings that suggest the relationship between cats and human goes back even farther than that. In a grave site in Cyprus, dated at somewhere around 10,000 years old, remains of a human were found buried with a wild cat. It suggests that we’re just starting to understand the centuries-old process that brought cats out of the forests and into our homes, and it started long, long before the Egyptians elevated them to a their long-held position of honor.
Show Me The Proof
ScienceDaily: Cat domestication traced to Chinese farmers 5,300 years ago PNAS: Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication The Guardian: Ancient Chinese cat bones shake up domestication theory