The Origins Of The House Cat

Posted by Theresa Blood on

The Odd Couple.

You don’t expect a mouse to do a cat a favor, but the house cat may never have come about if it hadn’t been for the house mouse. Settled farming meant that people could produce a surplus of food so they’d have something stored away for later. This led to grain stores which, in turn, led to infestations of mice. Much like cats, these tiny rodents had previously kept well away from humans, but large quantities of unguarded grain coupled with warm, dry place to build nests tempted them into a change of lifestyle. Following hot on their little heels came cats who, in spite of their natural aversion to company, were enticed into closer contact with humans by the promise of an easy meal.

The rise of the house mouse coincides with the earliest evidence of cat domestication and it has been suggested that this change in mouse behavior was the single most significant factor in turning the wildcat into the pet cat. It’s not too far-fetched to say that mice, rather than humans, are responsible for domesticating the cat. The cat’s keen work around the granary also explains why humans tolerated, even encouraged, the presence of these animals near their homes. These days, the house mouse, much like cats (whether pet or feral), almost always live around people and both species have carved out a niche for themselves where they are at once dependent on people but also retain a degree of independence.

Island Hopping

The ancient Egyptians often get the credit for domesticating the cat and they were, indeed, massive fans of all things feline. Members of this extraordinary civilization did the modern historian a massive favor by leaving such an extensive range of artifacts. When it comes to cats, we have statues, wall paintings, descriptions written in hieroglyphics and even thousands upon thousands of mummified bodies. The beginning of ancient Egypt takes us back to 3100 BC but there is evidence the cat became domesticated even before the first Pharaoh took a stroll along the Nile.

It’s no simple thing to pinpoint exactly when domestication occurred because wildcats and pet cats are so similar. Should an archaeologist unearth the remains of a long-dead cat, there’s nothing about the skeleton itself which tells us definitively whether the animal was wild or tame. Unless, that is, the skeleton is found on an island which has never had a wildcat population. That’s why the discovery of cat remains on the island of Cyprus (which has no indigenous wildcats) was so significant. Cats must have arrived on the island by boat so the find suggests a connection between cats and people which is much older than previously thought. Those seafaring cats could, of course, have been wild animals, but wild cats would not have made for easy cabin companions so it seems much more probable that they were already domesticated.

One Cypriot cat skeleton, discovered in 2004, is particularly intriguing. Believed to be about 9500 years old, the remains were found next to the grave of a human. The cat appears to have been carefully placed in the same position as the person and was found in the same state of preservation, suggesting a prompt and deliberate burial. We don’t know why the pair were buried o close together (the cat could have been a companion in the afterlife or an offering to the gods) but the graves offer a tantalizing glimpse of the very early days of an enduring relationship.

The Cat’s Mother

Recent research on feline DNA suggests that all our pet cats may be descended from a few families of wildcats that live near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq and was once known as Mesopotamia (an ancient civilization right at the heart of the Fertile Crescent). DNA samples taken from wildcats in the region were compared with samples from domestic cats in order to build a feline family tree. This is achieved by comparing the cats’ mitochondrial DNA (passed on though the maternal line), which provides information about the evolutionary relationships between different species. Researchers working on the project believe it’s possible that the lineage leading to today’s cats may have started in the wildcat population somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago. Humans began settling in the area around 10,000 years ago – which is possibly when this line of cats made their first steps towards sharing a home with us.

Four fascinating facts relating to cats:

  • Mouser: In old English a musere was a bird of prey that dined on mice. Variants of the word have been used to describe cats as well as birds since the 1400s. The word is still commonly used to describe cats with a predilection for hunting.
  • Cattery: Used to describe a place where cats are housed or bred since 1790. Now most commonly used to describe an establishment where cats can be left while their owners are away.
  • Cat Burglar: A particularly agile burglar who climbs stealthily into the target property, and used in news stories since the turn on 20th century. The expression, while negative when applied to humans, conveys a sneaking admiration for the physical prowess of cats.
  • Purr: An imitative word to describe the low, vibratory sounds produced by cats, generally thought to be a sign of contentment or pleasure. In use since at least the 1620s, the word has more recently also applied to human expressions of satisfaction.

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