Monday, October 12, 2009

How did the domestication of cats come about?

If you have a pet cat, you may often wonder, as I do, how such a playful, affectionate, and generally easy to live with creature could have evolved from the feral feline beasts that lurk in the jungles of Africa and Asia. Even my utterly domestic cat, who knows no predators and has never had to hunt a day in his life, has painfully sharp teeth and claws that he not only knows how to use, but that he rather seems to enjoy using at times. So how did humans and cats end up forging such a docile relationship? How did these fierce hunters end up in our homes?

According to the informational domestic cat website,, interactions between cats and humans go way back. The bones of cats have been found next to the bones of humans, dating back to the Stone Age. "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," reads the site.

It was the Egyptains, however, that first documented a relationship between humans and cats. According to the aforementioned website, "Tomb scenes dating from 1540 BC showed that cats played a large part in everyday Egyptian life." There is agreement among researchers that the Egyptians were the first to domesticate wild cats into house pets; however, it is unclear exactly when this happened. The website says, "There is no exact date that one can conclude when the cat was domesticated in Egypt, but researchers believe that the act took place around 2000 BC. Researchers have tried many times to pinpoint a date when the domesticated cat emerged, but ancient Egyptians did not indicate the differences between wild and tame cats in their records. Interestingly, the Egyptians had one word to refer to a cat (miu or mii), which translates into 'he or she who meows.' "

The species of cat that Egyptians befriended was the African Wild Cat, or Felis Libyca, according to This species is, "one of the closest wild relatives of the modern cat, explains the site, adding that it was slightly larger than today's house cats, and, "had yellow-gray fur,
striped markings, and a long tail that tapered off." Though these cats (pictured at right) are undoubtedly less intimidating than a lion or tiger, they are still very much wild, carnivorous, and territorial. So how did they make their way into the hearts and homes of Ancient Egyptians?

It seems the Egyptians actually appreciated the felines' predatory nature rather than fearing it. explains that, "The villages of ancient Egypt faced a number of poisonous snakes, rats and mice that attacked food supplies within the households and snuck into the village granaries. The wild cat would come into the villages and hunt down the vermin, ridding the community of one of their number one threats. Some researchers theorize that the Egyptians would leave pieces of food out to bring in more wild cats."

The website explains further the popular theory that the Egyptians eventually allowed the wild cats into their homes because the cats became known as pest controllers, rather than pests themselves. Once the cats became familiar with human surroundings and realized that humans were not a threat to them, "[they] allowed themselves to be tamed and raised their kittens in a human environment. As soon as the Egyptians began supplying the cats with food, thereby significantly changing their diet, and breeding them for certain characteristics, the cats were domesticated. They were perfect pets-playful, intelligent, affectionate and helpful to the farmers who sustained life in ancient Egypt," reads the website.

As a result, the Egyptains came to consider the cat to be a very sacred animal. points out that the Egyptains actually went through the trouble to mummify some cats, and it even became popular to name children after the cat. "Many Egyptian parents named their children after cats, especially their daughters. Some girls were called Mit or Miut," states

Very few purely wild African Wild Cats still exist in the world today, according to South Africa Explored. The site explains that, "Pure genetic stock of the African Wild Cat is today only found in remote areas [of Africa and the Middle East]. Elsewhere interbreeding with domestic cats has taken place." Still, it is quite likely that the cat you share your home with (if you share your home with a cat) is a descendant of an African Wild Cat domesticated by the Ancient Egyptians. points out that much of the characteristic aloofness of modern house cats was inherited from their wild ancestors.

1 comment:

  1. Ashleigh, good blog. Informative and well-written. Are we certain that all house cat descended from the African wild cat? If so, when did the house cat spread to other parts of the world?