When Did Cats Become Pets?

img_2873aCats and people began interacting as humans developed agriculture. As rodents and other small prey were drawn to stockpiles of grains and other food, cats were drawn to human settlements. Hungry felines were a boon to hardworking farmers, helping to dispose of critters who wanted to consume the harvest. At one time, researchers had believed that cats were domesticated by the Egyptians between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago. The recent discovery of a human and a cat buried together on the island of Cyprus dating back 9,500 years has overturned that theory.

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img_2980aChinese villagers 5,300 years ago may have had domesticated cats. Researchers excavating a village called Quanhucun found that both the humans and cats dwelling there ate a diet heavy in the grain millet. The cats most likely consumed rodents that fed on the humans’ stores of millet.

When did cats become domesticated pets, coexisting in households with human families and relying on them for food and shelter? Scientists aren’t sure, but they have determined by genetic analysis that the first major wave of cat expansion began in the Middle East. From there, cats spread into the eastern Mediterranean along with human farmers. A second major expansion, thousands of years after the first, took housecats from Egypt to Eurasia and Africa by sea between the fourth century BCE to the fourth century CE.

img_3096A DNA analysis of cat remains found at a Viking archaeological site in northern Germany dating to between 700 CE and 1000 CE shows that the seafaring warriors kept felines that had originated in Egypt. Cats were the most efficient way to get rid of rats and mice on board ships.

There’s another interesting tidbit revealed by studying the DNA of ancient cats. Tabbies didn’t exist until Medieval times, as the genetic mutation responsible for their distinctive stripes, spots, and whorls didn’t occur until then.

Today’s domestic housecats appeared between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago and are descended from a wild ancestor called Felis silvestris lybica. But unlike dogs that have been bred for specific desired traits and abilities for thousands of years, cats were never selectively bred until about 200 years ago. Furthermore, there is no genetic difference between house cats and feral cats that live wild and fend for themselves. Since most house cats are tamed feral cats that survived past six months of age, the personality traits in our beloved feline pets are the result of natural selection.


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