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The Origins and Domestication of the Cat

Felines have long been a symbol of mystery and grace.  A common housecat can exhibit the predatory stealth of a leopard, sit in sphinx-like stillness, and give a quick display of the elegant economy of movement and coordination of a ballet dancer, all in a matter of minutes.  Humans have valued cats as hunters, pets, and treasured companions throughout recorded history.  

Surprisingly, the stately feline, whether housecat or wildcat, does not directly descend from a noble and beautiful predator.  The cat is descended from a little primitive mammal that climbed around in trees and ate bugs when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.  This critter, going the way of most unintelligent creatures, began to die out while smarter strains of the species moved on and developed more fully.  Soon the Creodont evolved – a meat-eater with sharp teeth – but it still wasn’t smart enough to make it in the big, bad world.  As the Creodont died out, its relative the Miacid remained. 

The Miacid, a small, furry and shy animal that lived mostly in forests and wooded areas, had finally developed an advantage over its predecessors: intelligence.  The brain of the Miacid was much larger than that of the average Creodont.  The Miacis split into two groups: the Hoplophoneus (which included the saber-toothed tiger) and the Dinictis.  While the saber-toothed breed died out because of their inability to adapt to changing conditions, the latter persevered.

These Miacis thrived, as they were smarter and more adaptable than their predators, and again began to splinter off into different species that exist today: dogs, wolves, foxes, mongooses, genets, and civets.  And about twenty million years ago, from the civet finally descended the cat.  So, amazingly enough, cats and dogs aren’t as diametrically opposed as people think – they both developed from the same prehistoric weasel.

It is thought that there was some interaction between humans and cats near the end of the Stone Age, since feline bones were found near human ones.  It is unclear what kind of relationship they had – possibly the cats were just drawn to the food and warmth of human settlements, but didn’t hang around longer than it took to forage scraps.  Domestication came eventually, but it was thousands of years in the making.

Cats in Ancient Egypt
It is speculated that cats were first tamed and domesticated in ancient Mesopotamia as early as 8,000 years ago.  The first domesticated cats were thought to have come from the Wildcat, or Kaffir Cat, originating in the forests and deserts of Africa.  This type of Wildcat is similar to a tabby in appearance, with either a steel gray or a grayish-tan coat and darker tabby stripes.  A lot larger than our modern tabbies, these cats stand around 13 inches tall at the shoulder, with a length of 17-30 inches, and weigh anywhere from 6 to 17 pounds.  Their tails alone are nearly a foot long.

Tomb scenes dating from 1540 BC showed that cats played a large part in everyday Egyptian life.  They were revered for their hunting abilities, as they kept rodents away from granaries and food supplies, stopping the spread of disease, and they also killed deadly snakes like the asp. 

Ancient Egyptians took their cats with them when they went hunting, very much like the British lords of past centuries took their hounds.  Cats were trained to catch birds and fish in marshes like Spaniels and Retrievers.  However, to the Egyptian people, cats were much more valuable than just as a pest control agent or a hunting companion.  They were considered closer to the gods than humans were and worshipped accordingly.

Many of the deities worshipped by the Egyptian people had feline characteristics.  The goddess Bast (or Bastet), protector of children and cats and the goddess of fertility, was the most popular.  Bast was sometimes depicted with a feline head and a beautiful woman’s body, and sometimes in full cat form.  In honor of this goddess, people affectionately referred to their children “Mit” or “Miut” (meaning cat or kitten) and placed statues of her outside their homes to ward away evil. 

It was a crime punishable by death to kill a cat, accidentally or otherwise, and when a cat in the household died, the owners shaved their brows to show their grief.  Temples were built to honor cats and their patron goddess, and thousands of mummified cats have been excavated, attesting to their owners’ desire to send them into the afterlife in style.

Though the ancient Egyptians placed a strict ban on the export of their prized cats, a few made their way aboard ships sailing for far parts of the world, catching rats and mice all the way.  This illicit smuggling by sailors wanting pest-free ships drastically influenced the spread of the domesticated feline.

The timeline below gives approximate dates that the cat first debuted as a domesticated animal in different parts of the world:

900 BC – Cats are imported from Egypt and arrive in Italy.

AD 4 – Shorthaired cats are introduced to other parts of Europe by the Italians.

16th Century – Longhaired cats like the Persian are imported to Italy from Turkey, usually as gifts to nobles and royalty. 

17th Century – Cats make their way over to North America with the first settlers and soon give rise to the Maine Coon Cat.

19th Century – Longhaired cats are imported to the UK from Turkey and subsequently make their way to the US.  Later in the century, the Siamese is also imported to the UK.

Cats and Vikings – Who Knew?
The Egyptians were not the only ancient people to domesticate the cat.  The Vikings were believed to have tamed the Norwegian Forest Cat, or the Norsk Skaukatt, a breed that still exists today, and prized them for their rodent-hunting skills as well as their companionship.  These sturdy longhaired cats were most likely welcome foot-warmers in Viking longhouses during the long Norse winters.

Cats were also considered sacred to the Vikings.  The Viking goddess Freyja, worshipped for her influence in matters of love, fertility and war, was believed to consider cats her chosen animals.  When Freyja was depicted in her chariot, she was often pulled by two large, winged felines.

Cats Domesticated in Other Parts of the World
It is supposed that domestication of cats took place not only in Egypt and the North, but also in other regions around the globe.  Remains have been found in Central Asia, India, Russia, and Europe dating back thousands of years.

The beloved Persian, for example, one of the oldest breeds of domesticated cat to originate outside of Egypt, was believed to have descended from the manul of central Asia.  These cats were most likely tamed in Iran and Afghanistan, and eventually made their way across the world to become one of the most enduringly popular breeds.

Cats were also documented parts of life in the Far East, keeping mice from food stores and silkworm cocoons.  Written records dating from 999 AD documented the celebration of the birth of a litter of kittens in Imperial Japan.  The Emperor at the time was captivated by the kittens and ordered a breeding program to begin.  This eventually backfired, as it became the fashion to confine cats inside for breeding and soon there were problems with rodent infestation.  In 1602, the Japanese government declared that all cats should be liberated, under penalty of harsh fines.  The pest population was brought back under control and cats retained their popularity, with the added benefit of freedom.

The Dark Ages of Feline History
During the Middle Ages, the cat population in Europe and other parts of the globe declined significantly.  With the spread of Christianity, some fears and superstitions were formed about cats that lasted even into present day.  

Ironically, it was the plague that brought peace between felines and humans.  When it was found that the rodents that carried the disease were a cat’s favorite meal, some of the superstition and hatred died down and of necessity, the cat was welcomed back to resume their place as head mouse-catcher.  However, many of the beliefs formed about cats during the Middle Ages remain to this day.

The Mid-Nineteenth Century and the “Pedigreed Cat”
Following the rocky period of the Dark Ages the life of the cat has been much improved.  Cats gained popularity steadily until during the mid-nineteenth century, the idea of selectively breeding cats from certain breeds to produce an animal with pedigree took hold. 

Oddly enough, it was partly due to scientist Louis Pasteur, who discovered a microbe that changed animal lovers’ opinions: the constantly grooming cat was now considered hygienic and dirty dogs were no longer welcome in many houses.  Cats became the pets of choice, and as such, selective breeding for desirable coloring and personality traits became commonplace.

With the practice of regular breeding came the need to proudly show the results.  The first cat show in the US was held during the 1860’s and predominantly featured the Maine Coon Cat.  The first cat show in the UK occurred a few years later, in 1871.  Since then, breeding has progressed to such a level that any characteristic, from ear size and coat texture, to health and longevity, are now attainable with practice and patience.

This breeding interest in recent years has yielded new breeds and new variations of old breeds.

Modern Blue Persian – Well-known in Renaissance Italy, but bred seriously in Britain in the late nineteenth century.

Cream Persian – Bred in England in the 1920s.

Red Persian – Existed well before the 1800s, but experienced a revival of interest after 1940.

Smoke Persian – Appeared in record books in 1860, but nearly died out and was restored in the 1960s.

Tabby Persian – Emerged in the late nineteenth century.

Himalayan – Appeared in Sweden and US in the 1920s.

Cymric – Developed during the 1960s.

Birman – Said to originate in the temples of Tibet.  A pair made their way to the UK in 1919 and was subsequently bred.

Ragdoll – Began in California in the 1960s.

Balinese – Probably descended from the Siamese, the Balinese was bred in the US during the 1940s and 1950s.

Turkish Van Cat – Known for years in Turkey, the Turkish Van was bred in Britain in the 1950s.

Turkish Angora – Around for centuries, they were finally introduced to America in the 1960s.

Maine Coon – Frontier cats since the 1800s, breeding in the 1950s increased their popularity.

British Shorthair – Bred in the UK in different variations since the nineteenth century.

American Shorthair – Brought with the original colonists to the New World, the American Shorthair has been bred in several variations ever since.

American Wirehair – Bred in the US since 1966.

Siamese – Cultivated since as early as the fourteenth century in Bankok, the Siamese came to American breeders in the 1880s.

Abyssinian – Probably centuries old, this wild-looking breed has been bred in America since 1868.

Burmese – Bred in the US beginning in 1930.

Japanese Bobtail – With lineage tracing back to the Far East in the seventh century, the Japanese Bobtail came to American breeders in the 1960s.

Tonkinese – Bred in the US beginning in 1930.

Rex – Appeared in Europe after WWII.

Egyptian Mau – Roots that trace back to ancient Cairo, the Mau was exported to American breeders in 1953.

Sphynx – This hairless, Chihuahua-type cat was thought to have begun with the Aztecs, and was first bred in Canada after 1966.

Cats Today
Most of us value our cats more as companions than killers these days. The adaptation skills that allowed it to survive while other related species died out have continued to stand the cat in good stead.  Cats have used that adaptation to their advantage through the years to become an ideal pet in modern society.

As our population increases, most people have less square footage of living space.  While it is difficult for an animal lover to keep a dog happy and healthy in a small apartment, cats get along just fine.  While they may be finicky about some things, usually living arrangements are not one of them.  Settings and climate pose few problems: cats can be satisfied living on a farm in the Illinois countryside, or an apartment in New York.

Cats require little time and money, but pay back their owners richly with friendship and camaraderie.  With their great listening skills and abundant affection tempered by independence, cats will retain their position as treasured pets far into the future.  This history of the cat is only the beginning: there will be many more chapters to come.

Museum photos taken at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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