A Brief History Of House Cats: How They Domesticated Themselves

For over 10,000 years cats have lived outdoor lives, sharing the environment with wildlife..

Understanding the place of cats in history and human evolution uncovers how very recently cats came indoors and how millions of feral cat species continue to live healthy lives outdoors today, as all domestic cats are biologically adapted to do. Humans and cats have enjoyed a mostly symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. Here’s a brief history illuminating a very real ambivalence in the long relationship between cats and humans.

Origin of Domestic Cats

The unique relationship of cats with humans began nearly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, the geographic region where some of the earliest developments in human civilization occurred (encompassing modern-day parts of West Asia). As people gave up on their nomadic lifestyle and settled permanently to farm the land, their stored grain attracted rodents. Taking advantage of this new, abundant food source, Middle Eastern wildcats, preyed on the rodents and decided to stick around these early towns, scavenging the garbage that all human societies inevitably generated.

The Mystery of the Ancient House Cat

It has taken a while for scientists to piece together the riddle of just when and where cats first became domesticated. In 2004, the unearthing of a site at Cyprus led to the discovery of a cat being deliberately buried with a human, making it certain that the island’s ancient cats were domesticated at least 1,500 years ago.

Civilization’s Pet

When humans were predominantly hunters, dogs were of great use, and thus were domesticated long before cats. On the contrary, cats only became useful to people when people began to settle down, till the earth and began storing surplus crops. The cats were delighted by the abundance of prey in the storehouses.

God and Devil: The Cat in History

The ancient Egyptian reverence for cats is well-known and well-documented in archaeological records. Archaeologists found a cat cemetery in Beni-Hassan brimming with 300,000 cat mummies. Bastet, an Egyptian goddess of love, had the head of a cat, and to be convicted of killing a cat in Egypt often meant a death sentence for the offender. Ancient Romans held a similar reverence for cats and were viewed as a symbol of liberty. In the Far East, cats were valued for the protection they offered to treasured manuscripts from rodents. For some reason, however, cats came to be demonized only in certain parts of Europe during the Middle Ages and were often associated with the devil.

Catering to Cats: Inventing the Indoor Cat

Keeping cats indoors all the time was not possible, nor was it a goal, until several important 20th-century innovations such as kitty litter, refrigeration, and the prevalence of neutering and spaying. Even though these changes to our modern lifestyle make keeping cats inside possible, biologically, cats are the same as they were thousands of years ago. Their role in our society has evolved and broadened over the last hundred years, but their basic behaviors and needs haven’t altered at all.

So now you know, this popular modern-day pet has lived with people for nearly 12,000 years. Isn’t that fascinating?

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