Domestication of the cat

The ancient Egyptians are often thought of as the first civilisation to domesticate cats, breeding them to produce a distinct new species as long as 4,000 to 3,900 years ago. However, although domesticated cats (as well as wildcats, jungle cats, and other felines) appear in Egypt with great regularity in the art works of the New Kingdom (around 1570 to 1070 B.C.), the earliest definite representation of a domesticated cat (in which the cat is wearing a collar) in ancient Egypt was found in a Fifth Dynasty tomb in Saqqara dated to around 2498 to 2345 B.C.

Further evidence of domestication was discovered in the tomb of Baket near Beni Hassan (dated to around 1950 B.C.) in which there is a depiction of a cat watching a mouse while sitting with his mistress, the lady of the house. A feline tomb dated to the same period was found close by in which seventeen cats had been buried. They were interred along with a number of offering pots which the archaeologist Petrie suggested contained milk for the cats to enjoy in the afterlife.

Recent genetic studies now suggest that cats were domesticated when humans first cultivated wheat and barley in the Fertile Crescent (Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia) around 10,000 years ago. This is much earlier than the date usually proposed (by around 6,000 years) but would explain the presence of cats in Neolithic sites such as those in Cyprus and Malta.

Genetic similarities also suggest that domestication did not occur independently in different locations (as is sometimes proposed). There were five subspecies of wildcat in the ancient world:

  • The European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris).
  • The Near Eastern or African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica).
  • The Southern African wildcat (Felis silvestris cafra).
  • The Central Asian wildcat (Felis silvestris ornata).
  • The Chinese desert cat (Felis silvestris bieti).

When scientists compared the DNA of modern domestic cats with modern wildcats, the closest match came from wildcats living in the deserts of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

By studying the mitochondrial DNA (which is passed down the female line) of domestic cats all over the world scientists have determined that the ancestor of all modern domestic cats was one of (around) five individual African Wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica) who lived in the Middle East (possibly in Egypt or Sumeria). A staggering 600 million domestic cats can trace their origin to these ancient moggies!

If the genetic evidence is to be believed, cats were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 10,000 years ago and this new distinct species spread across the rest of the world with the help of their human friends. This in turn confirms that there must have been significant links between ancient civilisations which allowed cats to travel between different empires and even cross the Mediterranean during ancient times.