Maya (Tri-color) - My favorite street cat
One of the most interesting questions about domestic cats relates to their origin. Understanding a bit about the nature and the independent personality of these wonderful creatures and how they came to be the most popular pet in the world, requires some familiarity with their history.
Although it seems that cats have always been a part of our lives, less than 10,000 years ago the human cat association began. Why were cats so late to join our team? The simple answer is they didn’t need us to survive. Cats were surviving just fine on their own. With the advent of agriculture large scale storage of grains began. This attracted the usual group of freeloaders, mice and rats. Mice and rats attracted cats who considered them tasty meals. The result was that cats set up housekeeping close to human settlements. Eventually, cats being cats, moved right on in.
Who were these first cats? The first clue lies in in the Middle East ,where agriculture was first practiced and took root in a great sweep from modern day Turkey to Egypt. Within this area live the African wild cat ,Felis silvestris libyca. African wild cats are slightly larger that our modern house cats and are yellow in color with muted stripes. These cats have a docile, almost laid back nature. Interestingly, these cats still tend to live and hunt near human dwellings today. Locals still like to catch and rear young wild cats as pets. When mature, wild cats raised by humans tend to behave very much like our familiar housecats. A very good case can (and has) been advanced designating Felis silvestris libyca as the principal founding population for domestic cats. At least two other varieties of wild cat are speculated to have contributed to the genetic make up of domestic cats. One is Felis silvestris silvestris,
The European Wildcat who appears to have contributed darker markings and a peppery spirit to the African wildcat base. Also, from Asia, comes the Pallas or Steppe cat (Felis manul) that appears to have contributed long-haired coats to the mix.
Wildcat (Felis Sylvestris) range map. Reproduced under a Wikimedia commons license
Period of Cat Domestication
The early period of domestication of cats is vague with only patches of evidence.
"Traditionally, historians tended to think that ancient Egypt was the site of cat domestication, due to the clear depictions of house cats in Egyptian paintings about 3,600 years old. However, in 2004, a Neolithic grave was excavated in Shillourokambos, Cyprus, that contained the skeletons, laid close to one another, of both a human and a cat. The grave is estimated to be 9,500 years old, pushing back the earliest known feline-human association significantly. The cat specimen is large and closely resembles the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), rather than present-day domestic cats. This discovery, combined with genetic studies, suggest that cats were probably domesticated in the Near East, in the Fertile Crescent around the time of the development of agriculture? And then they were brought to Cyprus and Egypt."
The Romans spread the domestic cat northward into central
Europe and westward to Britain during the expansion of their empire.
Cats were quickly adopted and admired as great hunters. The Vikings used
cats as both rodent hunters and pets. The Viking goddess of love and
war, Freyja, was associated with cats. Huge winged cats drew her
chariot. It also became the custom to give a new bride a kitten in her
Attitudes towards cats throughout the ages
Throughout the ages, cats have been both adored and despised by different groups of people. During the Middle Ages it was a very bad time to be a cat, which were said to be the pets of witches, in league with the devil. Because of this superstition, cats were routinely killed during festivals. Sometimes they were even burned alive or thrown off tall buildings. The Europeans paid heavily for their cruelty to cats. The deaths of so many cats allowed the rodent population to rise out of control, bringing in the Black Plague which decimated much of the European population. Eventually, the cats’ clean ways and hunting prowess redeemed them in the eyes of Europeans. By the 1600s, people in France began putting little holes near the bottom of their doors to allow their cats to enter and leave as they please.
In Asia cats continued to be familiar hunters and cherished pets. Cats were often subjects for drawing and painting in China. In Japan, cats are usually portrayed as a sitting cat with one paw raised and bent,which is considered a sign of good fortune. This is called ‘Maneki Neko’. These cat statutes are often found in businesses in the hope of making money.
The history of cats is a fascinating one, worthy of much more in depth study. It fosters an appreciation for the personalities and talents of our pets.
Domestic Cats Nowodays