A brief history of the royal pet: the cat

Guest Post by Nancy Woo

The common housecat that slinks around 34% of yards in the U.S. has a long and fluctuating history in human evolution. From wild cats to farmhands, from gods to demons, the cat plays a small but fierce role in human history. Sometimes revered and sometimes feared, the cat has nonetheless been by our side for at least 9,500 years.

At least, this a recent estimate, according to archaeologists. It’s long been known that cats had been domesticating humans in ancient Egypt, where they were hailed as gods, but now scientists have evidence reaching back even further. In 1983, archaeologists found a cat’s jawbone on the island of Cyprus, which dated back to 6,000 B.C. It’s unlikely that wild cats were brought hissing and scratching on a long boat ride, so it is safe to say that skeleton was from a domesticated cat. Even more convincingly, a cat skeleton was found buried right next to a human skeleton, indicating a close relationship between the two – and this was at an even older site on the same island, dating back another 1,500 years.

In a study published in 2007, the modern cat has been linked to the ancient Felis sylvestris, a cat originating from the Near East about 12,000 years ago. It means, literally, “cat of the woods.” So what filled the space in between then?

The dog has been man’s ally for much longer than cats, proving themselves as useful hunting partners millennia ago, but the cat has also served its purpose in society’s evolution. It’s widely believed that cats first became domesticated sometime after the agricultural revolution, when farmers started storing grain and other food. This attracted mice, and cats were naturally drawn to the rich hunting ground; thus, the mutually beneficial relationship began. Early farmers may have left out saucers of milk or scraps for the kitty to entice him to return each day to hunt rats and mice – pests for farmers and food for felines – and throughout time, those with gentler traits were favored over wild ones. In this way, it may be said that cats domesticated themselves, and no wonder, since any cat would scoff at being tricked into docility.

By 2,000 B.C. the Egyptians were hailing cats as divine creatures, not least because they kept rats and snakes at bay in their grain storages. The cat was so integral to Egyptian life that, by law, it was illegal to export a cat, and punishable by death to kill one. If there is any ever doubt as to the cat’s haughty attitude, just look to the Egyptians. By 1,000 B.C. the cat had become a deity. Mafdet was the first feline goddess, depicted in early texts as killing a snake with her claws. Bastet, goddess of love, may be the most famous, depicted in drawings as a human with the head of a cat, and her divinity was celebrated yearly with a festival, full of wine and dancing. Not inconsequentially, Sekhmet was the lion-headed goddess who ruled over all of human fate. Perhaps most telling of the Egyptians’ love for cats was the cat graveyard in Beni-Hassan, which, when unearthed by archaeologists, revealed an astounding 30,000 feline skeletons.

The domesticated cat also moved into Asia and Europe, where its important role in pest control was similarly, though not ever so elaborately, recognized. Romans viewed the cat as a symbol of liberty, and some Asian cultures believed the cat to be a sign of luck and good fortune.

However, the cat’s high place in human society took a drastic nosedive in the Middle Ages. Somehow, the cat became associated with evil, black magic, the devil and demons. Cats were believed to be accomplices to witches, and even today, the superstition remains that it is bad luck for a black cat to cross your path. The fear of cats was so intense that during times of plague, cats were thought to be bringers of evil, and therefore killed without a second thought. This is somewhat ironic, since the Europeans were mercilessly killing the predator of the real carriers of the plague – the rat.

In North America, there had been no recorded evidence of cat domestication, though there were wild cats living on the continent. It wasn’t until the Europeans took root that the domestic cat began to roam. And now, of course, cats are loved and adored by much of the American population, as well as the world. Cats are seen prolifically in popular culture, from Garfield to Hello Kitty to the Cat in the Hat. And believe it or not, the cat is the most popular household pet in the U.S., ranking in at 90 million fearless felines.

Cats have been loved, feared, worshipped and tolerated. Their history is so entwined with our own, and now that they have become a staple in worldwide lifestyle and culture, it is our responsibility to take care of them as they have taken care of us. The cat is well cared for in American society, and the relationship has come full circle. Just as cats used to manage our pest levels, we now manage theirs. The average cat now regularly receives check-ups from a trusted veterinary technician, who will ensure that the feline is free from her own infestations, like fleas and ticks. Cats are said to have nine lives, but it’s better to be sure.

And maybe they do. One saying goes, “According to legend a cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.” In Egypt he played, in the Middle Ages he strayed, and in the modern day and age, he stays.

Nancy Woo is a freelance writer covering various topics from art and music to health, media and technology.

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