Humans and cats have lived alongside each other for at least 9,000 years. Early humans domesticated other species but cats domesticated themselves.
Just as your fluffy Maltese or poodle is descended from wolves, your cat is descended from Felis silvestris or the Eurasian wildcat. According to genetic evidence, all modern housecats are descended from one of five varieties of Felis silvestris:
- Felis silvestris lybica, the Sardinian wildcat
- F.s. silvestris, the European wildcat
- F.s. ornata, the Central Asian wildcat
- F.s. cafra, the sub-Saharan wildcat
- F.s. bieti, the Chinese desert wildcat
The relationship between cats and humans is unique because while cats were domesticated, they’ve retained a far greater degree of autonomy than dogs or livestock animals. We often see cats as colder or less affectionate than dogs, and while this isn’t always true, cats tend to be more independent and harder to train than dogs.
This may be because we domesticated dogs much earlier, and therefore, the genetic differences between dogs and their wild ancestors tend to be more pronounced. In addition, Felis silvestris was a solitary hunter, to begin with, while wolves and wild dogs tend to be social animals even in the wild. However, this may also be due to the way cats were domesticated.
The Domestication of Cats
The earliest remains of what appeared to be a domestic cat were found on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. The cat seems to have been buried alongside a human in a graveyard in Cyprus with several seashells, polished stones, and other ornaments. This burial is believed to have happened roughly 9,500 years ago.
Four thousand years after the Cyprian cat and its human were buried together, we begin seeing cats painted onto tomb and temple walls in ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians didn’t tame cats, so much as cats tamed them. Cats were pampered and revered. When they died, it wasn’t uncommon for them to receive the same honors as a human. The Egyptians even had a cat goddess – Bast or Bastet, the namesake of the city Bubastis.
How did cats go from living in the wild to having their own goddess in ancient Egypt? Experts suggest that the switch began not long after humans first began farming and living in stationary groups. Early farming communities would need someplace to store grain, and those places generally attracted mice and other vermin. In turn, the presence of mice tended to attract cats.
Early humans and wild cats quickly formed a mutually beneficial relationship. Cats guarded food stores against vermin – an essential job in agrarian societies. In exchange, humans provided them with extra food, affection, and a safe place to live.
Cats and humans have been living together for more than 9,000 years, but unlike dogs, they didn’t get domesticated so much as domesticate themselves. A mutually beneficial relationship between cats and early humans led to cats being the pets we love today.
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