20 facts about the spread of the domestic cat across the world

Here are 20 facts about the spread of the domestic cat around the world during the first era of the domestication of the cat.

Roman era cat paw print
Roman era cat paw print from Britain circa AD 100 as I recall. Picture in public domain.
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  1. Introduction: it is generally agreed nowadays that the first ‘domestic cats’ appeared in the Middle East around 10k years ago and from there they spread out to other parts of the world and this could only have happened if they were transported with travelling people using road transport and ships. The early domestic cats are probably better described as tamed wildcats and were semi-domesticated. The Ancient Romans domesticated them. They were not your little fur babies that we know so well today. They were all faint, mackerel/spotted tabbies. How did this spread of the domestic cat unfold?
  2. Different places received the domestic cat at different times.
  3. Cats were depicted killing snakes in the first dynasty of Egypt (c. 3100 BC–c. 2900 BC). There is a long association between cats and Ancient Egyptians but I decided that they can’t be called cat lovers because of the extraordinary amount of cat breeding and ritualistic slaughter to appease the gods. If tamed wildcats were imported into Egypt at that time, it would have been quite a short journey.
  4. France: Romans and Gauls buried their dead children with their pets. There is a ‘stele’ of a boy, Laetus, and his cat dated circa AD 100. Stele: an upright stone slab or column decorated with figures or inscriptions.
  5. Dr. Bruce Fogle in his book The Encyclopaedia of the Cat tentatively proposes some dates for domestic cats arriving in China. We are not sure when this happened but dates vary from 2000 BC to A.D. 400. The same applies to other countries in south-east Asia.
  6. The “traditional date” of A.D. 999 is the time in the history of the domestic cat when it arrived in Japan but Dr. Fogle considers this to be probably a bit late.
  7. With the advent of Christianity and with the expansion of the Roman Empire, there was ample opportunity to spread the cat from southern Europe into northern Europe and southern Russia in around A.D. 100. There is good evidence of domestic cats being the pets of Romans in the UK including Scotland around that time (see pics on this page).
  8. Hard evidence such as a skeleton excavated from a Roman villa in Darlington, England backs up the theory.
  9. It is possible that returning mercenary soldiers from what is now Istanbul brought with them the odd cat to Norway. It is thought that this happened around A.D. 100.
  10. It is also suggested that in around A.D. 500, domestic cats were imported into Latvia and at this time Dr. Fogle writes that “cats were being traded freely throughout most of Europe”. This implies that they were being bought and sold in Europe from A.D. 500 onwards. Domestic cats were valuable for their mouse catching and rodent deterrent abilities.
  11. A fragment of glazed Persian turquoise pottery was found in Saudi Arabia dated 13th century which shows a domestic cat hunting a bird.
  12. It is believed that the domestic cat reached India with Phoenician traders by around 500 BC, much earlier than in Europe. It may even have occurred earlier. The domestic cat is mentioned in the Sanskrit epics, Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa. These are dated circa 300 BC.
  13. The domestic cat arrived in the New World, that is the Americas later. It’s not clear but it is believed that the Vikings took ships’ cats with them when they discovered North America in A.D. 1000. They sailed to a place called Vinland which is now the Canadian province of Newfoundland.
  14. French Jesuits took cats to Québec in the 1500s.
  15. Ships’ cats accompanied pilgrims to America on the Mayflower in 1620.
  16. In the 1700s domestic cats appeared in the New World in large numbers with settlers in Pennsylvania importing them to help control rodents.
  17. The domestic cat was imported into Australia with European colonisers in the early part of the 1800s and they became feral in around 1820. Thereby causing the great feral cat problem of Australia which is intractable.
  18. Turkey is a country with an ancient association with domestic cats. It is known for the Turkish Van and Turkish Angora. The Turkish Van breed has lived in the Lake Van region of Turkey for centuries. This cat has probably been in Turkey for at least 5,000 years because they found the remains of domestic cats in archaeological digs around the city of Van dated from this time.
  19. The importation of the domestic cat in the South America is somewhat overlooked by the history books. We don’t know when it happened for sure. However, it is probable or possible that when the Portuguese arrived in Brazil for the first time in A.D. 1500 they were accompanied by the occasional ships’ cats.
  20. Although the domestication of the North African wildcat occurred around 10,000 years ago, it is reasonable to suggest that it didn’t just happen in one place i.e. in the Middle East. And therefore, it is likely that there were many instances of wild cat domestication on the African continent which still takes place today. There would have been no need to import the domestic cat into Africa?

A Bit of 16th Century Turkish Cat History

Domestic cat unearthed at a Roman amphitheatre at Richborough, Kent
Domestic cat unearthed at a Roman amphitheatre at Richborough, Kent. Photograph: Jim Holden/English Heritage.

Below are some more articles on domestic cat history.

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