There is only one well documented example of a close relationship between a human and a cat from about 11,000 years ago. It is, we believe, the earliest known example of the domestic cat.
Authors writing about cats, tend to say, as I have, that domestication of the Near Eastern wildcat commenced about 10,000 years ago but of course we can’t say exactly when or exactly where it was because domestication of the cat would have taken place over a large period of time and over a large area. Although it is believed that the area where domestication took place was the Middle East and North East Africa, a recent study of 5,000-year-old cat bones claims to show that felines were “first domesticated” in the village of Quanhucun, China. This is much later that the Cyprus find. As can be seen, the history of the cat is still being discussed.
However, in this article I’ll simply refer to the discovery, in 2001, by archaeologists from the Natural History Museum in Paris, of the complete skeleton of a cat in a grave dating to around 7500 BCE¹. The archaeologists had been excavating a Neolithic village at Shillourokambos in Cyprus for about 10 years when they made the find.
The cat’s skeleton was intact and lay within about 15 inches of a human skeleton. Both bodies were buried in a grave that had been dug deliberately, it was decided. The grave also contained stone tools that have been polished; flint axes and ochre. These objects indicated that the person was of high status.
It is interesting to note that the cat was not an adult; it is estimated that the cat was about a year old when it died. Because the cat was only a year old it has been suggested that the cat was killed deliberately to be placed beside the person in his or her grave. There is nothing, though, which indicates that the cat was killed deliberately.
The experts have guessed at the kind of relationship that existed between this young cat and the person. They say that when dogs were buried with their human companion during this era the dogs were placed in physical contact with the person. As that is not the case with respect to this cat it is an indication that there was an arm’s-length relationship between the two. However, all the signs are that the relationship was close.
Another interesting fact about this discovery is that no burials of cats have been recorded from the mainland Middle East until thousands of years later. If there was widespread domestication of the cat 11,000 years ago it would be fair to conclude that there would be many other similar graves.
As a consequence, we may be drawn to the conclusion that the initial domestication of the cat took place in Cyprus and cats from that area were subsequently exported back to the Middle East where the domestication of the cat flourished and the foundations for today’s domestic cat were established.
However, another hypothesis is that the Cypriot cat and her human companion is an anomaly, perhaps a one-off or a rare instance of a special relationship between a person and a treasured domesticated wildcat companion, at that time.
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- BCE means: BC and is an alternative to Before Christ, abbreviated BC.