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Domestication of Cats

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

Cats Are Only Semi-Domesticated

In 2014, a team of researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Luis found conclusive evidence that cats are only semi-domesticated when compared to dogs. No surprise is that: Dogs started their companionship with humans about 30000 years ago and compared to this long period, cats seem like strangers who just now knocked on our doors to say hi. Nine thousand years is a very short time compared to 30000 years.

Though 9000 years ago cats split off from their wild ancestors, they still breed with wild cats. Naturally, the genes that resist domestication still exist in them. This is not to say that domestic cats and wild cats are alike.

Researchers found that, unlike wild cats, domestic cats have specific genes related to memory and reward-seeking enabling them to have a special bond with humans. Dogs were pack animals whereas cats always have been solitary. This could also be one reason why cats cannot engage in socialising with humans as strongly as dogs.

History of Cat Domestication

A 2007 study found that cats were first domesticated in the Near East, as part of the agricultural development in the Fertile Crescent. Humans started agriculture for the first time in the Fertile Crescent only 11000 years ago.

Scientists think that cats were domesticated by rural people to protect their stored grain from rodents. Storing grains was an outcome of agriculture and cultivation produced surplus food to store. Cats kept the grain stores safe from rodents and played a great part in our agricultural history that led to the civilisation that we now are.

The first proof of human-cat association was collected from certain archaeological digs in Cyprus. Most of the domesticated animal species exhibit a common trait of neoteny, which is a tendency to retain child behaviour even in adulthood in various degrees.

Neoteny is a genetic change caused by a lack of competition and ease of acquiring food in domesticated animals. This also happens when humans do selective breeding of domestic animals, choosing docile behaviour, lesser aggression, and cute, child-like features as favourable traits. Cats are an exception to this while dogs exhibit strong neoteny.

Felis Silvestris is the wild species from which domestic cats (Felis Silvestris Catus) evolved. This species has five subspecies

  • Felis Silvestris Bieti: The Chinese Desert Cat
  • Felis Silvestris Ornata: The Central Asian Wild Cat
  • Felis Silvestris Silvestris: The European Wild Cat
  • Felis Silvestris Cafra: The Southern African Wild Cat
  • Felis Silvestris Libyca: The North African/ Near Eastern Wild Cat

In the genome of cats, there is always a mixing of domestic cats, domestic feral cats, and wild cats. However, the domestic cat, Felis Silvestris Catus, evolved from the subspecies, Felis Silvestris Libyca.

Contrary to popular belief, many wild cats are docile and easily domesticated. Here is an account of Reay Smithers about the domesticated wild cats he encountered in Zimbabwe,

“These cats never do anything by halves; for instance, when returning home after their day out they are inclined to become super-affectionate. When this happens, one might as well give up what one is doing, for they will walk all over the paper you are writing on, rubbing themselves against your face or hands; or they will jump up on your shoulder and insinuate themselves between your face and the book you are reading, roll on it, purring and stretching themselves, sometimes falling off in their enthusiasm and, in general, demanding your undivided attention.”

Sound familiar, don’t they?

Egyptian cat goddesses

Egyptian cat goddesses

Cat Etymology

Scientists say that the name, cat, originated either in North Africa or Western Asia. Below are the names used in different languages for cats,

  • English: Cat
  • French: Chat
  • German: Katze
  • Spanish: Gato
  • Latin: Cattus
  • Arabic: Quttah

All these words were derived from the Nubian word, Kadiz. There was this Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet who was also named Pasht. It was from this word that the English words, puss and pussy evolved. Also, the Romanians got their name for a cat, pisicca, from Pasht.


Cats in Egypt

The oldest picture of a cat in the household was found in Egypt and dates back to 1950 BCE. This picture was found in the tomb of Baket III at Beni Hasan, and it was a depiction of a cat attacking a rat.

From 1450 BCE onwards, cats became a common household presence in Egypt and populated the Theban tomb paintings. Egyptians are known to have a great love for different kinds of pet animals. Their sun god, Ra, was often depicted as assuming the shape of a cat when fighting his rival, the serpent of darkness, the Apophis.

In a later period, cats were associated with the goddess of sexual energy, Hather. As time passed, the association of cats again shifted to another goddess, the goddess Bastet. This happened between 945 and 715 BCE. There were catteries linked to Bastet temples and there were cat keepers who took care of the cats as a profession. Cats were loved greatly as pets in Egyptian homes and when a cat died, the entire family mourned and even shaved off their eyebrows.

In the cat cemeteries, they left bronze statues of cats to show their love and respect. Despite all this love for cats, Egyptians sacrificed cats at these temples and offered them to the goddess Bastet in a mummified form.

Cats in Other Civilisations

The Indus Valley Harappan civilisation had urban cats. Greeks and Romans initially preferred polecats and ferrets to cats because they also chased away and killed rodents. Only in 400 CE did Romans begin to accept cats into their domestic life. Cats arrived in China after 200 BCE.

By 1000 CE, cats spread in Europe and Asia. The modern cat breeds are found to have evolved only recently- Turkish Angora in the 1800s, and 22 out of the 38 major breeds in the last hundred years.

Cats and Christianity

James A. Serpell, professor of Animal Ethics and Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania, studied the change in the attitude of humans towards cats at the onset of Christianity and arrived at some very interesting observations.

The pagan religion saw cats as symbols of sexuality, fertility, and motherhood. For this very reason, Christianity began to see cats as demons and witches. When the fertility cults were suppressed, cats got banished from the realm of the divine. Cats became the symbol of the shape-shifting archetypal witch.

Black cats were especially hated and killed and tossed into fires set up to burn witches. Serpell reminds us that this also can be viewed as a misogynistic narrative that felt threatened by female sexuality.

Cats in Modern Society

Statistical data derived from studies show that cats are still less liked by humans than dogs. Many people in many cultures still believe that the sudden appearance of a black cat is a warning of bad luck.

However, there is a large section of the society that appreciates the love and company of these furry bundles of joy. This is why cats have now overtaken dogs as the world’s most popular companion animals.

© 2022 Deepa