The Origin and History of Cats

The scientific name for your house cat is Felus Catis and genetic testing has shown that all domestic cats have a common ancestor Felis silvestris, which is made up of three subspecies the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silverstris), the African Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), and the Asian wildcat (Felis silvestris ornata). While there is some debate, most experts agree that all modern domestic cats are derived from the African wildcat. 

Felis silvestris lybica– African Wildcat 

African wildcats can still be found throughout Africa and the Middle East in a variety of habitats including the steppes, savannas, and brush land, but not rain forests. They are can interbreed with domestic cats. These cats look very much like a domestic tabby. They have short fur that ranges from gray, sandy brown to brown with darker strips or spots with red patches behind their ears.

African wildcats are slightly larger than most domestic cats, weighing from 3 to 8 kg (6.6 to 18 pounds). They have pointed ears and white whiskers. Their eyes have vertical pupils with yellow greenish irises. Kittens are born with blue eyes that turn in about 5 months. They are born with their eyes closed and spend up to three or four months milking, but may also start to eat meat within 1.5 months of birth. The kittens are usually on their own by around five months.

African wildcats are mainly nocturnal and solitary. They mark their territories with their scent glands, which is often done by rubbing their head against objects. If this sounds familiar, it is because when your cat rubs his head against your legs, they are telling the world that you belong to them. Thus proving the adage that your cat actually owns you, not the other way around.

These cats make a wide variety of sounds including yowls and aggressive hisses, and soft purring. African wildcats also make a ‘meow’ like sound. Testing has shown that humans do not find the wildcats vocalizations as pleasant as a domestic cats. 

African wildcats primarily eats mice, rats, and small mammals. They also eat reptiles, amphibians, birds, and insects. These cats can live to 21 years of age, however more commonly their lifespan is 12-15 years. 

When Were Cats Domesticated?

It used to be assumed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to have domesticated cats. Now there is evidence that some cats were domesticated around 9,500 year ago in Cyprus. Scientists have found a burial site there that contains a man and an African wildcat buried side by side. Cats are not native to Cyprus, so humans had to bring them there. 

Engravings of cats on pottery from the Neolithic period, about 10,000 years ago also lend evidence to the idea that at least some cats were domesticated long before the ancient Egyptians. It it very difficult to determine when cats were domesticated, because they have essentially the same skeletal structure as their wild cousins. Wild cats were attracted to human settlements because humans attracted mice and other rodents that African wildcats prey on. So finding cat bones near human settlements does not tell you if these cats were pets, or just like the rodents and near humans. 

The best present theory is that cats probably started to live near humans shortly after the Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 B.C.E. This was the first time humans started to grow and store grain crops which attracted mice and other rodents. African wildcats followed their prey and came into close contact with humans. This was also the beginning of permanent human settlements, which provided a great and permanent source of food for the rodents. 

Humans appreciated that the cats kept the rodent population down, saving their grain. Because these cats were small, they were not a danger, so humans did not drive them off. Overtime some of these wildcats were probably more friendly and social with the humans. In turn, the humans were more likely to give these cats food scraps and other care, which meant they were more likely to survive than their less social cousins. This started the process of domesticating cats. 

Unlike dogs, cats remained essentially independent from their human friends. Cats are more like independent contractors, while dogs developed a more employer-employee relationship with humans. Your house cat is still capable of living in the wild and in fact almost all cats were feral until the last 100 years or so. This may explain why your cat is somewhat more aloof than your dog, who could not survive in the wild. Because of their independence cats genetic makeup has changed very little from their wild cousins, unlike dogs. 

Cats were prized as guests on ships also for their ability to keep the rodent population down thus preserving food stuffs. Because of this domesticated cats spread quickly to wherever humans sailed. 

Cats and Ancient Egypt

Gods in ancient Egypt were often depicted as cats. Ancient Egyptians thought of cats as sacred and magical creatures. Cats were so revered that killing a cat even by accident could result in a death sentence. 

Images and statues of cats have been found in Egypt as far back as 5000 years ago, in the archaeological record. Cats were revered for protecting the pharaoh from venomous snakes and scorpions. Baset, an Egyptian goddess, was originally a lioness, but over time she morphed into a domestic cat. Her warrior and protector of the pharaoh aspect was taken up by the goddess Sekhmet.

Baset was also the goddess of pregnancy and fertility. Another role she had was as the protector of houses and their occupants from snakes and rats. In addition, Baset destroyed the bodies of the dead with flame if they failed the judgment of Maat. 

A cult associated with Baset began around the 5th century B.C.E. in the City of Bubastis, near the modern day city of Zagazig. There was a festival to Baset each year in the city of Bubastis and it was said to attract over 700,000 people. The festival included music, dancing and copious amounts of wine. This cult continued until the Romans crushed it around 400 C.E. 

Cats were so beloved that wealthy families would dress their cats in jewels, feed them fancy meals, and mummify them when they died. Hundreds of thousands of cat mummies have been found by archaeologists throughout Egypt. 

The Egyptians even took their cats with them hunting and fishing. Cats were considered to bring good luck and they were treasured for their grace, beauty, companionship and hunting skills. Cat sculptures could be found both inside and outside the house. Women would wear cat amulets to ensure their fertility. 

Exporting cats was illegal in Ancient Egypt. As might be expected this resulted in a lucrative black market for exporting cats. The Egyptian government had an agency devoted to bringing back cats that had been exported to other countries. Sometimes ,even the army was sent out to recapture stolen cats. 

It is reputed that the Persians took advantage of the Egyptian reverence for cats in one battle. The Persians unleashed a number of cats onto the battlefield. The Egyptian army was reportedly horrified and surrendered rather than have the cats harmed in the chaos of the battle. 

Cats in Ancient China

Scientists have wondered if cats were perhaps domesticated in ancient China independently of the domestication of cats in the fertile crescent when agricultural began. A recent archaeological dig has found what appears to be domesticate cats in northern China from 5000 years ago or about the same time that Egyptians started worshiping cats.

The cat that they found is called the Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), which is a close relative of the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica). It is likely that the Leopard cat was drawn to Chinese towns because humans were storing food stuffs that attracted rodents, just as happen in the Middle East and Africa.

Despite this all modern domestic cats in china today are related to the African wildcat and not the Leopard cat. Leopard cats are about the same size as domestic cats and they can still be found roaming around in Asia.

Cats During the Middle Ages 

Cats in medieval ages in Europe had a rough history. They were still valued for their ability to kill rodents and protect the crops. However, they were also feared and associated with witches and black magic. 

As early as 1181 the Church warned that the Devil reveals himself as a black cat during Satanic rituals, “the Devil descends as a black cat before his devotees. The worshipers put out the light and draw near to the place where they saw their master. They feel after him and when they have found him they kiss him under the tail.”

A papal inquisitor told Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) stories of satanic rituals that involved black cats. The Pope thought that cats embodied the Devil himself. In 1233 he issued a Vox in Rama that described these rituals and stated that the cat became half Satan during these rituals. 

It appears that a cult in Germany had started worshiping the Nordic goddess Freya. She was the goddess of sexuality and was drawn through the heavens in a chariot pulled by two cats. The cats represented the qualities of fecundity and ferocity that Freya possessed.

The Church decided that this cult needed to be wiped out and sent out inquisitors to do exactly that. As a good catholic, you certainly did not want to be associated with black cats. Black cats were attacked all over Europe, but a particularly bad day to be a black cat was June 24, the feast of St. John. It was believed that witches could turn themselves into black cats on this day. So it became a tradition to gather as many black cats as possible in sacks and then burn them in a huge bonfire.

The Church’s assault did not end there. Pope Innocent VIII declared that when a witch was burned her cat or cats should be burned with her. Not surprisingly this zeal against cats among Christians resulted in depopulation of cats, which allowed rodents to thrive. 

There appears to be some evidence that the result of this systematic depopulation of cats was the periodic plagues that Europe suffered from 1300s through the 1600s. These plagues were devastating with the worst killing off about 50% if the human population in Europe. Some have jested that the plagues were the cats’ revenge.

A number of festivals developed in Europe around this cat purging lunacy. One particularly odd one developed in Ypres, Belgium. This festival was called Kattenstoet and was held during the second week of lent. The people of Ypres would gather up cats and take them up to the 70 meter high belfry of Cloth Hall and throw the cats down into the town square, where onlookers would cheer them on. 

The earliest records of this festival are from around 1410, but it likely started earlier and continued every year until 1817. During the last festival it was reported that the last cat thrown off the belfry survived the fall and scampered off to safety. 

It was over a century after this until the next cat was thrown off the belfry in Ypres. However, in this case it was a stuffed toy cat and the festival morphed into a celebration of cats, with floats and people dressed as cats. It is reported that if you catch one of the stuffed cats you are granted a wish. The last Kattenstoet was held on May 18, 2018 and drew tens of thousands of festival goers. 

In modern times, cats still inspire awe for their grace and beauty, but also fear. 
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