The History of the Cat

"A cat is a cat is a cat," wrote E.E. Cummings. And history would seem to agree with this distinguished poet. According to earliest records, the first sign of domestication of the cat dates back 8,000 years ago when bones of cats, mice, and humans were found buried together on the island of Cyprus. Apparently our early relatives brought both the cats and the mice to Cyprus with them: the cats on purpose, the mice perhaps as stowaways.

The cat family can trace their genealogy back to ancient Cyprus and Egypt. Unlike the domestication of the dog, pack animals with a built-in cooperative instinct, the full domestication of the cat (about 4,000 years ago) was not so easily achieved. Nomads of the upper Sudan area of Egypt established their agrarian communities in the rich soil of the Nile Valley.

Cultivating crops became a way of life for Egyptians, as it did for the tribes of Africa and primitives of southwestern Asia, where cats later appeared. Since crops could only be harvested once or twice a year, the question was how to store the life-giving grain without losing it to rats, mice and other vermin. Before long people noticed that the local cat population ate the rats that ate the grain, which was a very good thing indeed.

Wanting to rid the area of rodents, people welcomed cats into their communities with open arms. The perfect supply side economics involved the farmers who wanted their grain intact, rodents who wanted the grain, and cats who wanted the rodents. The farmers encouraged cats to stay around the house and farm by leaving milk-soaked bread, fish-heads and other scraps of food to attract cats. Cats discovered an ecological niche for themselves, a steady source of food, and affection from their human company.

The relationship between Egyptians and cats was unique. During that period of time, Egyptians owned all kinds of animals including cattle, sheep, fowl, pigs, and monkeys. Cats freely roamed the land and came and went at will.

Cats were held in such high regard that laws were created to protect them. Due to the cat's exalted status, a religious order of cat worship developed that lasted for more than 2,000 years. The cat goddess Bastet became one of the most revered figures of worship. Bastet had the body of a woman and the head of a cat. Associated with fertility, motherhood, grace, and beauty, Bastet's largest temple was in the city of Bubastis. The word for cat in ancient Egypt was "mau," similar to our "meow," a universal cat word.

Inscription on the royal tombs in Thebes read:

Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat

During the reign of the Pharaohs, it was considered a capital crime to kill or injure a cat, even if the cat died through an unfortunate accident. If a house caught fire, the rule went like this – cats first, humans second. If a cat should die of natural causes the entire household went into elaborate mourning with chanting and pounding of chests as an outward sign of grief. The body of the cat had to be wrapped in linen and delivered to the priest who inspected the cat's body to be certain he had died a natural death.

After death the body was embalmed, wrapped again in linen, decorated and either buried in special cemeteries or entombed in temples. Thousands of cat mummies were preserved in a huge temple at Bubastis. Mouse mummies were also found in the tombs, to assure that the cat had food for the journey into the afterlife. In fact, the Egyptians so loved their cats that cat mummies outnumbered human mummies by far. Over 300,000 cat mummies were found in one excavation alone at Beni-Hassan in the 1800s.

Because the Egyptians so prized their feline companions, there was a strict enforcement of the law against exporting cats. However, cats were so good at catching rodents they soon found their way aboard barges on the Nile River as mouse catchers and companions to captains and sailors.

Cats soon sailed aboard ships to countries bordering the Mediterranean including Greece and Italy. Overland caravans lengthened the cat's popularity to the north and east. Slowly cats migrated to India, China, and Japan, where they were highly prized as pets and impressive rodent killers.

Once royalty in Egypt, cats today have not forgotten their heritage. Lucky for us, the cat is here to stay.