History Of Cats: How Did We Domesticate Felines?

By | December 9, 2020

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An Egyptian archaeologist cleans the bronze ancient Egyptian sitting cat statue. (Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images)

House cats today are not much different from their wild ancestors. Their fierce independence and hunting prowess may have been why humans came to revere—and in some cases, worship—the cat, but at what point in the history of cats did they deign to live in our homes? How did we domesticate cats?

The History Of Cats

Unlike dogs, who evolved considerably over the domestication process as humans bred them for specific jobs, cats have remained largely unchanged since ancient times. With the exception of the tabby cat, which has developed a distinctive coat, today's cats are nearly genetically identical to the wildcats that lived thousands of years ago. This is part of the reason why cats can become feral rather quickly, even if they were raised as domestic cats. Despite the cushy lifestyle of pampered house pets, they still have all the skills needed to fend for themselves in the wild, if need be.

According to researchers who analyzed D.N.A. from the remains of more than 200 cats unearthed from the ruins of ancient sites in Romania, Egypt, and parts of the Middle East spanning nine centuries, the modern domestic cat likely descends from two primary lineages. One line of cats, Felis lybica lubica, originated in Africa and flourished in Egypt and the Mediterranean, while Felis sylvestris lybica traces back to southeast Asia and spread into Europe as far back as 4400 B.C.E.

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A cat eating a fish under a chair, a mural in an Egyptian tomb dating to the 15th century B.C.E. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The First Human-Cat Relationship

Historical evidence tells us that cats began their relationship with people more than 8,000 years ago in the agricultural communities of the Fertile Crescent in the present-day Middle East. It's believed that cats approached humans first, not because we seemed cool and they wanted to hang but because the grain storage buildings in human settlements were a buffet of mice and rats. Nobody particularly minded the company of a bunch of cute exterminators who otherwise didn't demand too much, so the humans and cats settled into a peaceful coexistence. Cats most likely followed humans on their nomadic wanderings, chasing that sweet, sweet mice supply, and when when villages grew into cities, cats remained.