The Origin of Domestic Cats
When scientists and archaeologists trace the origins of today's domestic cat, one thing becomes very clear: The cats we live with today weren't domesticated the way dogs were. Ask your cat about this, and she will simply smile at you slyly. Your dog, on the other hand, will wag his tail, hoping you just offered him a treat.
Unlike pet dogs, in many ways our savvy family felines have managed to stay true to their wild roots, while convincing their unsuspecting humans that they are also perfect house pets.
Today's housecat is a descendent of Felis libyca, the African Wildcat. While you might think that the cat happily sleeping on your sofa is anything but wild, rest assured that if she's hungry enough, she, like almost any cat, is perfectly capable of catching something tasty for dinner. Those of you who have received a gift (read: carcass) of a mouse or bird lovingly left on your bedspread know what we mean.
THE CAT'S MEOW IN EGYPT
Ancient Egypt's recorded history shows the domestication of cats began between 2500 and 2200 B.C., while the first evidence of a domestic relationship between cats and people appeared between 1600 and 1500 B.C. These ancient cats knew how to start a relationship off right. They weren't just considered cuddly companions; they were worshiped as gods. Something your cat would still insist upon today, by the way.
Why were cats such a big deal for the Egyptians? No doubt their mighty rodent hunting skills made them the superhero protectors of community grain stores. The cause of the cat worship craze is unconfirmed, but temples and artwork dedicated to cats - including the goddess Bast, with her cat's head and woman's body - were clear signs that cats were indeed a big deal to the ancient Egyptians.
While cat worship calmed down in later years, their hunting abilities continued to make cats valuable to humans, including the ancient Greeks and Romans. In fact, the Roman Empire's presence in Britain reveals that the ancient Britons also placed a high value on cats - literally. One statute from 10 th-century Wales set the price of a cat at four pence - the same as that for a full-grown sheep, goat or untrained dog.
A TERRIBLE MISUNDERSTANDING
Not every cat enjoyed such good fortune during the Middle Ages, however. Beginning in the 13th century and continuing well into the Renaissance, cats - especially black ones - were a popular target for blame across Europe. The reason for this hostility isn't certain, but it probably had to do with cats' nighttime antics, eerie screams and occasional violent behavior toward humans (never without cause, of course).
Some of these perceptions came over with the colonists to the New World in the 17th century, when cats were associated with witchcraft. Many people believed witches could even transform themselves into cats. While some aspects of these superstitions persisted into recent history, cats slowly regained their popularity starting in the 18th century. From Queen Victoria in England to Mark Twain in the United States, people everywhere were proudly expressing their love for cats again.
Today, our love for cats is just as strong. They still delight and enchant us. And whether they're hunting for mice or simply seeking out the food dish at dinner, we happily accept their domestication - on their terms. On second thought, maybe there's something to this whole cat-god thing after all…
- Becker M, Spadafori G. Do Cats Always Land On Their Feet? 6, 156.
- Bradshaw J, Casey R and Brown S. The Behavior of the Domestic Cat, 2nd Ed. 11.
- Bradshaw JWS. Cat Sense. 2013: 50-60.
- Siegal M. The Cornell Book of Cats. 1989: 3-5.