Cats probably first put a paw into domestic life when humans made the switch from being hunter-gatherers to being farmers. Growing crops meant storing grain, and granaries attracted swarms of rodents ready to feast on this new bonanza of food. In turn, this provided an inexhaustible supply of easily caught prey for local populations of wildcats.
The modern house cat has its origins in the very birthplace of agriculture, a swathe of richly productive farmlands known as the Fertile Crescent that extends from the Nile Valley up to the eastern Mediterranean and then southward to the Persian Gulf.
When, more than 2000 years BCE, the ancient Egyptians established the earliest-known organized agricultural societies along the banks of the Nile, the African wildcats of the region were ready to fill a new niche.
Most of the cats that began to visit the Fertile Crescent farming communities would have been small spotted tabbies, very much like many of today’s household pets. Although initially these cats arrived uninvited, eventually farmers began to realize the benefits of having on-site rodent control.
The popular theory is that people actively encouraged cats to take up residence in their grain stores by tempting them with food scraps. From there, it is easy to imagine how the increasingly socialized cats would have moved into the house.
Sheltered from the hazards of the wild, including larger predators, cats could now breed prolifically and their offspring had a better chance of surviving to maturity.
A litter of kittens born in a domestic environment, and most likely petted from a very young age, could with little difficulty be absorbed into a family as pets.
As Egyptian civilization rose, so did the status of Egyptian cats, whose eventual progression from household mouser to sacred icon is well recorded in paintings, statues, and mummified remains. However, until cats started to spread out of the Fertile Crescent from about 500 BCE, the concept of the cat as a truly domesticated animal did not extend beyond this region.