History of domestic cats – From Felids to Felix

Ailurophilia goes back thousands of years, but have you ever wondered how many thousands of years exactly? When did the domestication of cats really begin?

Finding out the origin of cat domestication is a complicated matter even for scientists because wild cats and domesticated cats are very similar in skeletons and also DNA. 

After long hours of research with Dobby on my lap, we gathered information from numerous studies and journals that show not only archeological evidence of cat domestication around the World, but also genetic evidence of their ancestors. 

Are you as excited as I am?

Felis Silvestris lybica

Felines are spreading their love one tiny paw at a time for over 10,000 years! 

We always believed that Egypt was the birthplace of domesticated cats around 4000 years ago, but, in 2001, archaeologists have found a grave in the Shillourokambos site, Cyprus, containing an eight-month-old cat buried with its human, dating back to the Neolithic and believed to be 9500 years old. The site was already known for authenticating the presence of cattle in the aceramic Neolithic period, and now is offering the oldest archaeological evidence of the domestication of cats, preceding the Egyptian civilization! 

african whildcat

Many articles state now that cats were domesticated in the Near East over 10,000 years ago, in the first human agricultural villages developed in the Fertile Crescent ( modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, together with the northern region of Kuwait, the southeastern region of Turkey and the western portion of Iran, some also include Cyprus). And domestic cats derive from at least five founders from across this region, whose descendants were transported across the world by human assistance. 

© Video from WildCiencias

But, according to a journal published by a team of researchers led by Keith Dobney in 2016, Earliest “Domestic” Cats in China Identified as Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) cat domestication also occurred in China about 5,500 to 4,900 years ago from the Middle Yangshao to the Late Longshan cultures.

Based on the data indicated by the osteometric analysis of eight ancient felid bones found in the agricultural settlement of Quanhucun, Wuzhuangguoliang, and Xiawanggang revealed that the bones were actually that of the leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis) which shows that the domestication of cats in Neolithic China began independently from the South-West Asia and involved different species of felids altogether. The five mandibles studied from these sites represent at least four separate individuals and span a time range of circa 1,500 years.

As much as we would want the leopard cat to get a domestic status, the leopard lineage appears to have been short-lived and completely replaced by the domestic Felis catus, descendent of the wildcat Felis silvestris lybica at some point after the Late Neolithic.

The leopard cat can easily be bred in captivity, even produced the Bengal breed by hybridizing with an American shorthair domestic cat, however, the leopard cat does not appear to have contributed genetically to any existent lineages of domestic cats living in China today. 

Cats have domesticated themselves – go wonder! 

In his article ‘The taming of the cat’, Dr. Carlos A. Driscoll believes wild cats chose to live with humans more than 10,000 years ago, for the easy hunting of rodent livestock and finding human food scraps on the first ‘grain farms’ of the Neolithic villages in the Fertile Crescent. So, they did not serve the humans but more likely were accepted by the humans as useful pest control. He writes “whereas other domesticates were recruited from the wild by humans who bred them for specific tasks, ancestors of domestic cats most likely chose to live among humans because of opportunities they found for themselves.” 

ancestor of domestic cat

In the ‘Domestication of cats’ section of the From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication study, Dr. Driscoll, and his colleagues David W. Macdonald and Stephen J o’Brien tell us that the original domestic cat was a product of natural selection. 

Wildcats are improbable candidates for domestication, being obligate carnivores and eating a high protein diet, living a solitary existence where they defend exclusive territories making them more attached to places than people. Also, cats do not perform direct tasks and their actual utility as mousers is debatable as a terrier dog will be more suitable for the job. Therefore it is little reason to believe that the humans from the neolithic agricultural villages would have actively sought out and selected wildcats as pets. In the scientist’s words ‘the best inference is that wildcats exploiting human environments were simply tolerated by people and, over time and space, they gradually diverged from their “wild” relatives.

The ancestors of domestic cats

F. silvestris

The ancestor of all modern domestic cats is the African wildcat, F. silvestris lybica, with archaeological evidence indicating it was domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago in South-West Asia.

But setting any archeological evidence of cat domestication aside, researchers at Science, discovered in their study, ‘The Near Eastern Origin of Cat Domestication’ that the ancestors of the domestic cats date back over 100,000 years!

To get more into the details.

The genetic assessment of 979 domestic cats and their wild progenitors — Felis silvestris silvestris (European wildcat), F. s. lybica (Near Eastern wildcat), F. s. ornata (central Asian wildcat), F. s. cafra (southern African wildcat), and F. s. bieti (Chinese desert cat) — indicates that each wild group represents a distinctive subspecies of Felis silvestris and puts the estimated age of the ancestors of F. s. lybica and domestic cats to 131,000 years. By other genetic methods of ancestry determination, the date of estimation ranges between 107,000 to 155,000 years. These estimates based on the genetic evidence from at least five matrilineal mtDNA haplotypes are far greater than the implied archeological age for cat domestication based on the evidence found in the Shillourokambos site in Cyprus. 

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Evolutionary history of domestic cats

the domestication of cats, from Felidis to Felix
© That’s Meow

Over time, evidence of cat domestication was found in cat sculptures and painted pictures of cats in the Middle East and the cats were just beginning their journey from wild to becoming Gods in ancient Egypt, worshipped by the Egyptians as their “official deities” about 2,900 years ago, portrayed especially as the goddess Bastet, a cat-headed woman, protecting homes from evil spirits and disease. 

Growing in popularity as pets, cats managed to get the Egyptian people to believe they were so sacred to the point where the Ptolemaic rules banned the export of cats from Egypt and instated the death penalty for killing a cat, as a sacrifice to Bastet. 

cat sculptures egypt

From there cats began to spread and be popular in Europe over 2000 years ago, shown in literature and art. The first recorded breeds depicted in Thailand’s ‘Treatsie on Cats’ dates back to 1350-1767 and ultimately the first Cat Show that took place in London 1871 showcasing the first pedigree cats and formulated the first cat show standards. 

During domestication, cats have undergone only minor changes in anatomy and behavior, and they are still capable of surviving in the wild.

Big story short

Cat domestication began in the Middle East, in the region of the Fertile Crescent over 10,000 years ago when the first human agricultural settlements took form. The human food scraps and mainly the grain stores packed with rodents lured in the ancestors of all modern cats, the wildcats Felis silvestris lybica from the forests to the early human settlements. So cats and humans had a mutually beneficial relationship, cats would control rodents and humans would allow them to stay and provide extra food for them.

And the oldest archeological evidence of cat domestication was found in Cyprus, in an archeological site, showing a cat buried with its human and believed to be 9,500 years old. And the oldest evidence showing the ancestors of the domestic cats dates back over 100,000 years coms from a study on cat genetics and DNA collected from cats from 5 continents.

Because Dobby and Dot are rescued from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus where cats today still roam free on the streets since 328 A.D. as the origin of the Aphrodite cat breed states, we take pride in knowing that Cyprus is not just the Island of Love, but also seems to be the Island of Love for cats!  

If you know any more interesting facts about the domestication of cats or have any questions for us, please let us know in the comments below.

Have a meowgical day! 

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