The skeleton of a young bobcat was found buried with humans in 2,000-year-old burial mounds in Western Illinois. The discovery hints at the possibility that Native Americans, on occasions, had cats as pets. The most common wild cat in North America was and still is the bobcat. It would appear that this small-medium sized wild cat species might have been domesticated or semi-domesticated 2,000 years ago. It this is true it mimics what happened in the Fertile Crescent 7,500 years early when the first African wildcats were domesticated in the Middle East.
The cat was laid to rest with a collar made from bear teeth and seashells. It was buried in a place intended for people.
The burial mount overlooks the Illinois River, 49 miles north of St Louis. It was built by the Hopewell culture.
The mounds were first excavated in the 1980s and initially the skeleton was recorded as that of a puppy because the Hopewell were known to bury their dogs. Dogs were certainly pets 2,000 years ago in America.
A research scientist and PhD student, Angela Perri, found the skeleton at the State Museum in Springfield in 2011 and realised it was not a puppy. A zooarcheoloogist at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology confirmed the bones where those of a cat. I am not sure why it is taken so long for this to come to light.
It was decided the remains were those of a bobcat aged around 4-7 months-of-age. The cat was not sacrificed. There were no signs of trauma on the cat.
The cat had been buried carefully. For this culture to bury a cat with people appears to be almost unique. Either the cat was a much loved pet and the rules were bent to allow it to be buried with deceased people or its burial had some sort of spiritual significance. It is not clear what that might be.
The Hopewell culture were known for creating animal artwork. This perhaps supports the idea that they might have had tamed wild cats cats as pets. This is a fascinating thought as until now the entire focus on the domestication of the cat has been in the Middle East.
I wrote an article ages ago about the possible domestication of wild cats in South America 3,500-years-ago. It is interesting to speculate whether the relationship with the cat in America would have been different if the bobcat was widely domesticated. I suspect that the bobcat although tameable is less suited to domestication than the North African wildcat so this thought is pure fantasy.
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