When Was The Cat Domesticated?

Posted by Theresa Blood on

Chinese Puzzle

The riddle of exactly where and when the cat was first domesticated may never be solved and in some ways the more we learn, the more questions we unearth. Recent excavations in China have brought to light some very old cat remains, which brings into question some long-held suppositions about the origins of the cat. It’s widely accepted that cat domestication first took place in the Middle East or North Africa, which is a very long way from China. Yet feline bones, believed to be around 5300 years old, were recently found at the site of an ancient village in the Chinese province of Shaanxi.

It’s impossible to say whether these cats were wild or domestic, but specialist analysis of the bone material suggests the cats feasted on mice that had eaten farmed millet. In other words, these cats must have lived in close proximity to humans. At least one of the cats appears to have been quite old, suggesting life in the village wasn’t too bad. Archaeologists also found evidence of significant rodent damage to storage areas, so the cats may very well have been welcome. Unfortunately, researchers were not able to find enough DNA in the bone fragments to identify which species the cats belonged to, so it’s not yet known if these cats were introduced from elsewhere or if they represent an additional and unrelated occurrence of domestication.

Cross-Channel Cats

The Romans certainly made their mark on the world. In the wake of their frequent invading and colonizing they left behind some very useful stuff: straight roads, for a start, and paved streets and aqueducts. They also had a hand in spreading the domestic cat across much of Western Europe, including Britain. When the Romans invaded Britain in 55, 54 and then again in 43 BC, they brought cats with them. Cat remains have been found at Roman sites in Essex and Kent and cat paw prints have been discovered on Roman tiles in Gloucester and Shropshire.

But were Roman cats really the first domestic felines to arrive on British shores? Given that no cat is ever going to swim across the channel, someone must have brought them over. But lots of invaders and traders had already crossed the sea by the time the Romans arrived in Britain, and one intriguing find in a Dorset village points to the possibility that the cat arrived there even before the Romans. The bones of seven cats (five of them kittens), dating from around 250BC, were found at an Iron Age fort. The fact that the cats were obviously breeding so near to human dwellings suggests they were not wild. Tellingly, some of the earliest evidence of house mice in Britain was also found at the site. Bones will keep their secrets and we may never get to the bottom of exactly when domestic cats first arrived on the British Isles, but these skeletal remains appear to underline an ancient truth – cats and humans are drawn to each other because people hate mice and cats love them – for dinner, that is!

Taming Your Little Tiger

Domestication has only touched the surface of the cat – at heart they remain fundamentally the same as their wild ancestors. This wild streak is undoubtedly part of their charm. Cats are regarded as free-spirited creatures and admired for their apparent independence. But nobody wants a cat that really behaves like a tiger in the house, which might be exactly what you’ll get without some timely and kindly interaction with kittens. The fact is that, even after many centuries of living alongside humans, cats are not natural born, docile, domestic pets. They do, however, differ from their wild cousins in one crucial respect – they have an inborn capacity to learn how to be amenable companions.

In order for this to happen, though, they need a sound upbringing. Between two and seven weeks of age, kittens experience a ‘socialization period’. This is when they are curious about the world around them, open to new experiences and are unafraid of the unfamiliar. It’s vital that kittens at this stage of life have plenty of positive experiences of being near people. Kittens that are not frequently handled during this phase may develop an exaggerated fear response which is likely to stay with them throughout adulthood. While cats will always partly be wild at heart, they do need a little help to become tame enough to be content in our company.

Four Fascinating Facts Relating To Cats:
  • Catnap: A short sleep taken during the day, often while sitting rather than lying in bed. Recorded since the 1820s, the term reflects the way cats tend to fall asleep wherever they are, but can also become fully alert after only a brief snooze.
  • Cat fight: First used to describe an altercation between the cats in The Cat Fight, a mock-heroic poem published in 1824, usage was extended to refer to squabbling women a few decades later. A cat fight usually involves low-level violence, including scratching and hair-pulling, but may also be verbal rather than physical.
  • Catgut: A material commonly used to make strings for musical instruments such as violins and cellos. Made from the intestines of animals, usually sheep, there is no known record of the stomach of cats being used to make catgut. The etymology of the word has yet to be satisfactorily explained.
  • Fat cat: A slang and often derogatory term for a person who has a lot of money which they may use to gain power and favor. Commonly used to describe those who are perceived to be overpaid and out of touch with ordinary people, the term was originally coined in the USA in the 1920s and referred to wealthy backers of political parties.


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