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The History of Cats - How Were Cats Domesticated?

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Cats may not be mans best friend, but they are friend to a lot of people. Whether a cat person, simply one who likes cats, or even one who hates the creatures, the history of cats might be an interesting one. The truth is people can't be completely sure how cats were domesticated because it happened a very long time ago. However, science is showing us more and more about the history that seems so far away and yet in your home and your heart.  

Oscar the Cat

What is a Cat?

The domestic cat is not really clearly defined in science. In 1758, Carolus Linnaeus classified it as Felis catus in the Systema Naturae. Later, some scientists classified it as Felis catus domesticus to clarify that it was indeed the domesticated cat. In recent times, scientific evidence has shown that the cat is really a subspecies of the wildcat, Felis silvestris and is known as Felis silvestris catus. They are a relative of small wild cats. There are a number that are very similar to domestic cats. In fact, there are many people who believe that domestic cats aren't really domesticated and instead tolerate people.   

When Were Cats Domesticated?

For a long time it was believed that cats were domesticated along the Nile river during the times of the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians mummified cats and had a wide variety of cats in their artwork making it clear that they were a huge part of the lives of many Egyptians. Then a grave was discovered on the island of Cypress in the Mediterranean. This wasn't just any old grave. This one was 9,500 years old and it included the remains of a person and a cat. This is particularly interesting because there were no wild cats on Cypress. This cat was brought with the people to the island. This means that cats have been domesticated for a very long time. Many experts even go as far as to date the beginning of domestication as happening around 12,000 years ago.  

Where Were Cats Domesticated?

While many people think that the cat was domesticated along the Nile, new research suggests that it was earlier than ancient Egypt and it was likely in the Middle East. This is really where the 12,000 year estimate kicks in. The idea is that food stores and trash left by people drew in small animals such as mice, rats, and birds. These animals drew in cats. Cats stayed because the homes of people protected them from larger animals and provided lots of food.  

Credit: David Corby 2006, Wikipedia, CC BY SA

How Were Cats Domesticated?

This is where “self-domestication” comes into play. Most scientist agree that it isn't likely that people domesticated animals, but instead they did it themselves. They got bold. Then through the process of natural selection cats became more and more friendly. This happened because mean cats were likely driven away and nice cats were kept on. The nicer cats were also more likely to get treats and therefore have a better chance of breeding more often and in larger numbers. Kittens were likely to be more domesticated than their parents by children who thought they were adorable and loved getting their hands on them.  

Domestic Cat Genetics

A lot of information was gathered from a recent study. The study started by comparing the genes of the five Old world wild cats that are closely related to the domestic cat. They found that the European wildcat, the Near Eastern wildcat, the Southern African wildcat, the Central Asian wildcat, and the Chinese desert wild cat had genetics that are five definitive clusters. This means that each of these cats, while similar, is different genetically. Then the study took a lot of different samples from domestic cats all over the world and compared them to the wild cat genetics. This showed that all domestic cats DNA fell into the same category as the Near Eastern wildcat. The DNA data even allowed them narrow down the closest relatives to the domestic cat. They were found in the deserts of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudia Arabia.

The study went even further. They looked at the mitochondrial data of domestic cats. This allowed them to determine that all the domesticated cats in the world come from five matriarchal lines. Five female cats populated the world with domestic cats.  

Breeds With Other Wildcat DNA

The study and the articles about it didn't address any information about other wild cats mixed into the domestic lines. Some studies have suggested that other cultures had domestic cats a long time ago. Did these animals still come from the five matriarchal females in the Middle East? Were some of them developed from other wildcats and then later mixed with the those cats that were domesticated in that region? The evidence from this study would say no, but those may be questions that come back.  

Angry Cat
Credit: Lmbuga, Wikipedia, CC BY

Are Cats Really

There are a lot of scientists, animal people, and dog people that often argue that cats aren't really domesticated. The idea comes back to a number of thoughts about cats.

  • Cats don't really seem to respond to people. Most won't follow directions. They are known for being the king of the castle. In this way, cats have really domesticated people to take care of them.
  • Most cats will revert back to the wild state. Most of them will be able to take care of themselves, they can hunt, and they will continue to do what cats do.
  • When stray cats give birth to cats in the wild they are then considered feral populations. Feral cats are domestic cats that are no longer friendly with people. In fact, the farther they get from people the worse they get. They can then damage the ecosystem.

Cats have a long history with people. It's an interesting history. While the modern cat isn't the decedent of a lion, even if he acts like it, he is very close to a wild cat. They have gone from wild animals, to tolerated, to loved ones, to worshiped, and back again.  



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