Humans have a deep and cherished relationship with our feline friends. But did you realize that this relationship may have begun in ancient times? According to journalist David H. Grimm, the first evidence of cat domestication comes from a grave that dates back to 7500 BC, where a human was buried with a cat. Smithsonian reports that archaeologists found an 8,000-year-old feline bone on the island of Cypress. This hints at domestication, because why on Earth would you bring a feral cat on a boat with you?
Most people assume that the story of cat domestication begins in Egypt around 1950 BC. Back then, cats were brought into homes to keep them free of pests. It didn’t take long for cats to be revered as gods. Although your own feline probably expects the same kind of veneration, you probably have a different relationship with your kitty than the ancient Egyptians did. So then, how did cats make it all the way from the Nile Valley into your lap?
Cats vs. Dogs as Pets
Dogs are a natural companion for humans. They’re smart, easy to train and have an innate desire to cooperate and serve, making them incredibly useful for hunting and scouting. Those are just a few reasons why these pack animal were domesticated before felines. Unlike canines, cats don’t have any of those subservient instincts or tendencies. They’re notorious for their autonomous nature. Just when you think you and your cat are on the same page, she does something silly like run around the house chasing an invisible bird. But make no mistake, felines were and still are incredibly useful to humans, and that’s not just because they’re cute and occasionally cuddly.
In ancient farming communities, harvests only took place a few times a year. In the off-season, grain had to be stored for long periods. In storage, it was susceptible to destruction by rodents. Farmers started to notice that when cats were nearby, they ate the mice and rats, and the grain remained intact. To keep the cats around, farmers started feeding them, throwing them scraps of food so that they would return and continue exterminating the mice. The cats simply showed up, and the relationship worked perfectly.
It’s interesting that these ancient peoples didn’t try to keep cats the way they kept livestock. Cats were able to leave the house whenever they pleased. Over time, the cats that lingered in people’s houses were the ones that weren’t kicked out for their wild or aggressive behavior. In other words, the sweeter, more docile cats were invited to stay. They adopted new lifestyles as they were given food, shelter, and attention in these man-made environments, and that’s pretty much how house cats behave today.
Cat Symbolism Through Time
Humanity’s attitude toward the cat has shifted drastically over the years. In ancient Egypt, you could be put to death for killing a cat. The Egyptians also mummified cats and buried them with bowls of food to take with them into the afterlife. Moreover, the Great Sphinx, one of the most important and iconic figures in Egyptian myth, has the body of a lion. The Romans admired cats almost as much as the Egyptians did. Some Roman soldiers even kept felines as mascots, and cats were the only animals permitted in their temples.
Although cats were greatly admired in Egypt and Rome, they were demonized in Europe in the Middle Ages. They were still kept in households to catch mice at the time. However, they were also associated with witches and religious ceremonies that were considered heretical. Some experts think that because people killed so many cats in the name of expunging evil, rats were more effective in spreading the plague. Perhaps if more cats were around to eat them, history would be very different.
Modern House Cat History in America
With the Enlightenment came more tolerance for cats. The first European colonists brought cats on their ships to the New World. According to Petcentric, scholars say that the American Shorthair breed is related to felines that traveled aboard the Mayflower. Although two dogs were on the ship’s manifest, no cats were listed. That goes to show that the relationship between humans and cats was still one of relative independence. As Sir Harry Swanson said, “You can’t own a cat. The best you can do is be partners.”