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The Domestication of Cats

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The Domestication of Cats
Compared with other domestic animals, cats are not very domesticated. They do not tolerate leashes, they do not stay in pens or enclosures, they hate to be washed by humans, and they are extremely good at staying out of reach when they are wanted. What other domesticated animal catches a wild bird and leaves it half-eaten on your doorstep? Why do cats have such a lofty, independent attitude? Domestic cats’ unique evolutionary history and relationship with humans may explain why they are still so similar to their wild relatives.

Uncovering when and where cats were first domesticated from their wild ancestor Felis silvestris is made difficult by the similarities in bone structure between domestic and wildcats caused by interbreeding (Linseele et al., 2007). The domestication of cats has been commonly thought to have originated in Egypt, from where domestic cats spread to other continents (Linseele et al., 2007). This is supported by the fact that keeping domestic cats did not spread widely until the second millennium B.C.E., at which point cats were important figures in Egyptian culture. Around 1900-1800 B.C.E., cats were often depicted in Egyptian art, and an earlier illustration of a cat with what might be a collar was found in a tomb dated to 2500-2350 B.C.E.

Recently, the remains of a young cat were found at a burial site in Egypt and were dated to about 3700 B.C.E. based on pottery also present at the site (Linseele et al., 2007). Based on zoogeography and the size of the cat's bones, the cat was thought to belong to Felis silvestris. Two leg bones had evidence of healed fractures, which were severe enough to suggest that the injuries were caused by human capture or captivity, as the cat would probably not have survived in the wild with such extensive injuries. Considering how long it would have taken for the bones to heal, it is estimated that the cat was in captivity for 4-6 weeks. These remains are evidence for early taming of the cat at around 3700 B.C.E., which may have led to its domestication as well. However, there is no evidence in Egyptian art of the same period that cats were culturally important, nor is the cat prominent in coincident archaeozoological records, which suggests that complete domestication had not yet occurred (Linseele et al., 2007).

Furthermore, the European domestic cat is smaller than the ancient Egyptian cat, which supports an origin in the Near East, where cats were smaller (Linseele et al., 2007). In 2004 the remains of an 8-month-old cat and human were discovered, dated to have been buried in approximately 7500 B.C.E., at a Neolithic site in Cyprus (Linseele et al., 2007; Wade, 2007). This is before Egyptian civilization had arisen, which suggests that ancient Egypt was not the first site of domestication. As there is no evidence to support that native wildcats ever existed in Cyprus, it is hypothesized that farmers from Turkey brought cats with them when they settled in Cyprus.

Further evidence for a Near Eastern origin of cat domestication comes from a genetic analysis recently performed by Driscoll and colleagues (2007). They analyzed the DNA of 979 domestic cats and their wild ancestors, the European wildcat, the Near Eastern wildcat, the central Asian wildcat, the southern African wildcat, and the Chinese desert cat. They found that each wildcat is a distinct subspecies of Felis silvestris, and the domestic cat is most genetically related to and hence descended from the Near Eastern wildcat. Evidence suggests that cats were domesticated at the same time as the development of agricultural villages in the Fertile Crescent more than 9000 years ago, and come from at least five different founders in this area before spreading to the rest of the world. Driscoll and colleagues (2007) suggest that with the development of agriculture and domesticated grains and cereals, rodents drew wildcats to human settlements. Humans may have allowed or encouraged the wildcats to control the rodent population, and those cats which did so gradually lost the bulk of their wild behaviors.

The evidence that cats were originally domesticated in the Near East as opposed to Egypt is more convincing, as it is hard to argue with genetic analyses. Perhaps cats were first domesticated in the Near East around 7000 B.C.E. as genetic analyses suggest, but Egyptians also experimented with taming and holding wild cats in captivity in about 3700 B.C.E., as archaeological evidence suggests. However, it is unclear whether the taming in Egypt led to complete domestication (Wade, 2007). Did the revered and mummified cats of ancient Egyptian society actually come from the Near East?

Questions of origin aside, the domestication of the cat stands out from other animal domestications. Most other domestic animals were deliberately tamed by people, but cats likely domesticated themselves (Wade, 2007). Unlike other domesticated animals, including dogs, cats became domesticated because of the presence of humans, not direct human actions. Wolves are hypothesized to have scavenged food scraps given out by humans and become less fearful over time, leading eventually to the dog (Pennisi, 2002). Cats, on the other had, did not directly depend on food from humans, but on rodents in human settlements. In addition, dogs and humans seem to have mutually enhanced each others’ survival through their evolution together, with dogs affording protection and humans providing food (Pennisi, 2002). Although cats benefited from humans, it was more indirect; cats could hunt mice independently of whether or not humans wanted to give them anything. Likewise, the control of rodent populations was certainly a plus for humans, but it probably did not have a large impact on how well they survived.

It seems that dogs and humans evolved more closely together than did cats and humans. These evolutionary histories make sense considering the respective personalities of dogs and cats. The typical dog wags his tail enthusiastically, follows you around, and is ever eager to give you a sloppy kiss on the mouth. The typical cat, on the other hand, although sometimes purrs contentedly on your lap, usually goes about her business with little notice to you except a cock of the ear.

Driscoll, C. A., Menotti-Raymond, M., Roca, A. L., Hupe, K., Johnson, W. E., Geffen, E., Harley, E. H., Delibes, M., Pontier, D., Kitchener, A. C., Yamaguchi, N., O'Brien, S. J., & Macdonald, D. W. (2007). The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication. Science 317(5837), 519.
Linseele, V., Van Neer, W., & Hendrickx, S. (2007). Evidence for early cat taming in Egypt. Journal of Archaeological Science, 34(12), 2081-2090.

Pennisi, E. (2002). A shaggy dog history. Science, 298, 1540-1542.

Wade, N. (June 29, 2007). Study Traces Cat’s Ancestry to Middle East. The New York Times Science. Retrieved February 6, 2008, from

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