Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose's cat.

The Origins of Cat Domestication

The ancient region known as the Fertile Crescent, which sweeps in an arc from the Nile to the Persian Gulf, was where the domestication of cats is believed to have originated. This region also corresponds to part of the natural range of the African wildcat, the ancestor of all domestic cats.

Earliest Links

Until quite recently, accounts of the history of the domestic cat generally agreed that the earliest evidence of feline cohabitation with humans could be dated to ancient Egyptian societies around 4,000 years ago. However, discoveries in the last few years hint at a much earlier link between cats and people. In the early 2000s, archeologists excavating a Neolithic village in Cyprus came across a burial site containing the complete skeleton of a cat alongside human remains.

As the grave contained various valuable objects such as stone tools and other artifacts, it appeared that the person had been interred with some ceremony. Researchers concluded that the cat, estimated to be about eight months old, was likely to have been deliberately killed and buried because it had some special significance. If this is the case, the evidence that people kept cats, either as status symbols or pets, takes a major leap backward to 7500 BCE.

The Cyprus cat is similar to the domestic cat’s ancestor, the African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica. If it did belong to this species, it was not native to the island and so must have been taken there. Archeologists have also recently disinterred the bones of small felines at the site of a 5,000-year-old arable farming settlement in central China.

Detailed analysis of the bones suggested that the cats had preyed on grain-eating rodents, so they clearly had some association with the human community, although whether by chance or because they had been tamed is impossible to establish.

Fascinating though they are, these newest finds are a long way from representing conclusive proof that the domestication of the cat is an older story than originally believed. However, it is likely that the domestication of the cat progressed through a number of unsuccessful starts.