Cats are such and integral part of our lives that it seems strange that for most of our history there were no domestic cats. While dogs have been our constant companions for at least 15, 000 years (and by some estimates more than 50 000 years), the cat didn’t deign to come and live with us until 10, 000 years ago.
The reason for this is simple. Cats are supreme hunters and did not need charity nor hand-outs to survive.
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 first domestic cats probably descended from the African wild cat (Felis Libyca). Archeological records suggest that they were first domesticated in the Middle East, where organized agriculture started.
But there are at least two other varieties of wildcat that may have contributed to the genetic make up of domestic cats. One is Felis Silvestris, the European wildcat, while the other is Felis Manul, the Pallas or Steppe cat, from Asia.
One of the earliest bits of evidence regarding domestic cats is a Turkish statue, dating back some 8, 000 years. This shows women playing with cats and indicates that cats were already domesticated by this time.
The first written records regarding cats were found in Egypt, and date back to 4,000 BC. The Egyptians regarded cats as the embodiment of the goddess Bast, and killing a cat, even accidentally, carried the death penalty.
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.
The Middle Ages were a bad time for cats. They were said to be witches familiars, and were routinely killed and tortured. But Europeans paid a heavy price for their cruelty to cats. The deaths of so many cats allowed the rodent population to get out of control, resulting in the Black Death, which decimated the population of the continent.
Eventually the cat’s reputation was redeemed in Europe. By the 1600s, they were again gaining in popularity as pets. It even became common practice for people to make small holes near the bottom of their doors so cats could come and go as they pleased.
In Asia though, the popularity of the cat had never waned. They were revered and cherished, and were the subject of art works in both China and Japan.
The cat retains its popularity today as a human companion, even surpassing the dog in terms of popularity in some countries. This is a worthy tribute to this endearing, elegant animal.