Worldwide, it is estimated that there are 500 to 600 million domesticated cats living amongst humans. In fact, one in three Americans has a cat as part of their family. (Personally, I grew up with more than 10 cats, at different times living in our household. At one point, my family had five cats in and out of house – at the same time!) But where did the domesticated cat, with the scientific name felis catus, originate from?
For a long time, it was thought that cats were domesticated in ancient Egypt. And, while early Egyptian culture does play a role in domestication, the earliest evidence of cats living with humans was discovered in the 1980’s on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. In a burial site on this island, skeletons of a cat and human were found buried together, dated to around 7500 – 7200 BC. This archeological find strongly suggests that cats and humans were living together. However, since cats are not indigenous to Cyprus, it is thought that domesticated cats were brought to the island from the Middle East / Asia Minor-area.
Approximately 10,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of human civilization, humans began to expand their agricultural practices in permanent settlements. Consistent food sources for humans also meant that rodents began to become more common near humans. Scientists think that wild cats were attracted to these early human settlements due to the increased activity of rodents. And these agricultural farmers probably didn’t mind having these wild cats around, as they helped eradicate mice and rats and were smaller (compared to large wild cats, such as lions or tigers) and therefore posed less of a threat to their physical safety. Again, researchers think this relationship grew for around 1,000 years, with wild cats and humans getting more and more familiar and friendly, to the point where cats were domesticated and similar to our modern-day house cat.
As early Middle East and Mediterranean cultures began to grow and trade, cats also went along for the ride and were spread to southern Europe and beyond.
As mentioned earlier, ancient Egypt had a large role to play in the domestication of cats. The Egyptian goddess Bastet was commonly depicted as a cat or as a woman with the head of a cat. In the sacred city of Bastet, Bubastis, thousands of cats were found scarified and/or mummified, strongly suggesting the Egyptians had an ample supply of domesticated cats. Cats were worshipped and, at one point in Egyptian history, it was illegal to kill cats and to export them. Additionally, Egyptian artists painted many scenes of domesticated cats, dating to over 3,600 years ago.
During the Roman Empire era, before the beginning of the first millennium, domesticated cats were introduced to the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica. In the end of the fifth century AD, the Egyptian domesticated cat line was brought to the Baltic Sea region. As time went by, and the Roman Empire expanded, domesticated cats were found throughout Europe and become more frequent in art and literature.
Cats and the Americas
Christopher Columbus documented having cats on his voyages, as well as the crew of the The Mayflower, most likely to help control any stowaway rodent populations.
The next time your feline friend snuggles up to you, be sure to show them some extra appreciation. Their species has come a long way, from catching mice near an early Mesopotamian farm, to being worshipped by ancient Egyptians, to sailing across the Atlantic ocean with early explorers, to running around your house and purring in your arms.