The Mystery of the Ancient House Cat

Dr. Brianne Hagerty, Avery and Bjorn

The first cat I remember owning we named Tigger. I was five and I named him after Winnie-the-Pooh. We scooped him up from a soggy cardboard box in front of the grocery store, the last free kitten left of the litter looking for a home. A tiny and damp grey tabby, my Mum promptly put him under her jacket and we proceeded to walk into the store to buy kitten food and a litter box. Tigger may have been small but his personality was not. He was born a determined hunter, with a loyal but strong character. I clearly remember bringing him to the veterinarian for his first kitten vaccines. There he sat bravely on the exam table, a tiny kitten staring up at the broad shoulders and large caring hands of Dr. Rogstad. His response to his first visit was not fear or curiosity, but a kitten sized hiss and a look of contempt.

Cats can be peculiar and shockingly independent creatures, yet truly loyal, loving and strikingly intelligent. Just like tiny Tigger and his giant personality, everything about the cat isn’t as it seems or straightforward. Instead, understanding them, their behaviour, their tendencies and, for a veterinarian, what ails them, is a riddle. The mystery of the ancient house cat and when and where domestication occurred has been equally as puzzling for archaeologists throughout history.

The year is 1983 on the island of Cyprus and the curved delicate jawbone of what was thought to be an 8000-year-old cat was the first clue that domestication occurred before this time. Why before? Imagine how difficult it can be for us to even convince our docile, couch content feline to go into their travel carrier and accompany us on a trip. Who in their right mind then would select a completely wild, spitting, hissing, scratching frightened feline as their travel companion on a boat; therefore the populations of cats on the island of Cyprus –thus their domestication must predate that piece of a skull. In 2004 the unearthing of a deliberately buried cat placed with their human, added an additional 1500 years to the suspected date of domestication. With the aid of genetic analysis, it is now believed that all domesticated cats descend from a Middle Eastern wildcat, beginning nearly 12,000 years ago.

“Why Yes, Thank You”:

Just as cats allow affection when they choose, comes when they desire and allow human interaction if they please, it is believed that cats essentially domesticated themselves. Unlike the dog, who was of great use to the early nomadic human populations, cats only became useful when people began to settle, work the land and harvest crops. With flourishing crops came the long-term storing of surplus food. With grain stores came mice. At last there were isolated areas of abundant, well-fed rodents, and therefore a captive audience for cats. It took little work for cats to quickly win the good graces of the people, as pest control was crucial. As cats adapted to living amongst people, the docile ones were likely favoured with extra table scraps, and a warm place to sleep and slowly but surely became the domestic cats of today.

A God and the Devil:

The Egyptian cat: a helper, a protector and a sacrifice to the Gods. Detailed artwork depicts the rich history of the cat throughout Egyptian culture, dating back to around 1950 B.C. With the skills to kill snakes and scorpions, cats moved into an almost God like role. Bastet, an Egyptian goddess of love, had the head of a cat. To harm a cat was a crime punishable by death and the mummified remains of cats were used as sacrificial offerings often placed with their deceased owners. These mummified cats were even placed in tombs with their own mummified mice to accompany them in their afterlife. The ancient Romans also held a certain reverence for cats, for whom they symbolized liberty. In the Far East, cats were the protectors and keepers of treasured manuscripts, saving them from destructive hungry rodents.

However, during the Middle Ages, Europe’s view on our feline friends was drastically different. Demons, a witches pet and the incarnate of the devil himself, cats suddenly became vermin. The feline-human relations deteriorated quickly when Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull which declared cats as the instruments of Satan, and set Medieval Europe on a great cat purge, with special attention paid to black cats. Ironically, it is thought that this awful treatment of our fellow feline may have added to the spread of the Bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis, which is carried by the fleas of rats. Sadly, the black cats may have been partially replaced with the Black Death.

The Modern Feline:

Not until the 1700’s did cats begin to reappear in our presence and our good graces. Over the last few centuries our domesticated cats have been bred into an array of vastly different shapes and sizes. However, in all actuality, it is only recently that we have consistently shared our homes with these felines.

Watching even our peaceful house cat, we can easily observe their natural hunting skills. Like their wild relatives they exhibit a stealthy stalk, quick pounce and flash of claws and teeth. Their impeccable hearing, agile and nimble paws, and superb balance, allow cats to gracefully navigate the urban jungle. Perhaps little has really changed since the ancient times, when they decided to grace our presence. And how lucky we are that they did!

Letters to the Editor

Tax Topics with Fin: Death and Taxes