Prehistory of the cat

It is thought that wild cats began to live and hunt near to human settlements in Western Asia and the Middle East during the Early Neolithic period (also known as the New Stone Age) around ten to eleven thousand years ago. This was because the development of agriculture encouraged mice and other scavengers to congregate around human settlements. Engravings featuring wild cats (and other animals) dating to the early Neolithic period have been discovered in Western Asia but it is not clear whether these cats were domesticated or simply lived in the vicinity of the human population.      

Archaeologists have recovered the remains of cats from digs near Jericho (thought to be the world’s first city) which they consider could be 9,000 years old. These cats may simply have lived near to human habitations, but it is harder to discount the discovery of a carefully preserved cat in the grave of a Neolithic man found on the island of Cyprus dated to around 5000 to 5500 B.C.

The cat was clearly important to have been buried alongside the man, but we cannot tell whether the cat was domesticated, pre-domesticated, or a wild animal with a totemic or religious association. However, cats were not native to Cyprus, so that cat must have been transported there by humans in the first place. The cat specimen is larger than a domestic cat but bears a close resemblance to the African wildcat the probable ancestor of the domestic cat.

There are a number of interesting finds from the Indus valley dating to between 5000 and 3000 B.C. which include cat bones and the imprint of cat tracks in the mudbricks they used in construction. In Hacilar (Turkey) archaeologists discovered statuettes depicting women carrying cats or catlike creatures (some dispute whether they are in fact cats) in their arms. The statuettes are generally dated to around 5000 to 4000 B.C. and it is often proposed that these cats were domesticated. These statuettes may form the earliest known oldest known depictions of pet cats.

Feline skeletal remains have also been found in the Neolithic sites of Santa Verna Temple and Xemxija in Malta dated to around the same period.

A joint animal and human burial discovered in Mostagedda (Upper Egypt) contained the bodies of a man, a cat, and a gazelle. This burial is dated to around 4000 B.C. It is not clear whether the cat was domesticated, but it must have been of some value to the man.

In Hierakonpolis (Upper Egypt), the skeleton of a cat was discovered in a pre-dynastic tomb dated to around 3700 BC. It is suggested that this cat had been domesticated as he had suffered two broken bones (his left humerus and right femur), but both had fully healed some time before his death and burial implying that he had been nursed back to health following his injuries.