Cats are so central to our lives these days that it seems impossible to imagine a life without them. But, in fact, domestic cats are are fairly recent arrival in human history. While dogs have lived with us for at least 15, 000, and possibly as long as 50, 000 years, the cat only became a human companion some 10, 000 years ago.
It’s easy to understand why. The cat is a supreme predator, and quite capable of looking after itself.
When cats eventually decided to live with us it was a decision based purely on opportunity. The invention of agriculture meant large quantities of grain had to be stored. Silos were erected for this purposed and naturally attracted rats and mice. Cats viewed this abundant food source and decided to move in to take advantage of it.
The archaeological record tells us that the first domestic cats appeared in the Middle East, where agriculture was invented. These cats descended from Felis Libyca, the African wild cat.
But the African wildcat was not the only contributor to the gene pool of the domestic cat. The European wild cat and the Asian Steppe or Pallas cat are also widely believed to have played a part.
There is very little information regarding the early domestication of cats, but statues dated back to 6, 000 BC, and found in modern day Turkey, show women playing with cats, suggesting that cats had clearly become common as pets by that time.
Written records first appeared in ancient Egypt about 6, 000 years ago. Here the cat was highly revered and was believed to be the earthly embodiment of the goddess Bast.
The Romans first introduced the cat to Europe, and similarly held felines in high regard. From Italy cats spread west to Britain and north to Scandinavia. The Vikings loved cats, and their goddess Freyja, is depicted riding a chariot pulled by winged cats.
However, by the Middle Ages, things had turned bad for the cat. The church declared them servants of Satan and they were were killed and tortured in their millions. Europe would come to regret their persecution of the cat. Due to the cat’s demise, rodent populations ran out of control, causing the Black Death, a plague that killed millions of Europeans.
By the Renaissance cats were back in favor as pets. The great artist Leonardo da Vinci, referred to them as ‘God’s perfect creation’. It became commonplace to see holes cut into the bottom of doors to allow access to the resident cat.
In Asia, the cat’s status had never been in question. They were cherished and revered throughout the Orient where they were believed to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. They featured widely in the art of both China and Japan.
In the modern day, the cat’s popularity continues to grow. In the US, they’ve even overtaken the dog as the most popular pet species – a worthy tribute to our fascinating feline friends.
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