Did the Vikings bring the first domestic cats to North America?

There’s been quite a lot of discussion about the first domestic cats in America. We are sure that early Americans, around 10,000 years ago, did not domesticate a wild cat species and thereby create the first domestic cat. That happened in and around what is now Syria with the North African wildcat. So, the only way the domestic cat came to exist in North America was through the importation of domestic cats into that continent.

Vikings brought the cat to North America?
Vikings brought the domestic cat to North America? The cat in the image is a Norwegian Forest Cat. Image by MikeB
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And there are two possibilities in that regard. In the early 17th century, Europeans and the English began to settle on the east coast of America. We know that they brought ships’ cats and those cats became domestic cats in their homes along the east coast including the state of Maine. This is around 400 years ago. This was one certain route for the introduction of domestic cats into North America and specifically America as it is called now.


But the other alternative is one which is more problematic but which has become a little more certain recently. What follows is how it might have happened in around A.D. 1000; about a thousand years ago.

It is believed that the Crusaders from Great Britain brought with them British shorthair cats to Norway around 1000 A.D. and afterwards. These would have been the forerunners of today’s Norwegian Forest cats.

And also, around 1000 A.D. it has now been established that Vikings from Norway had settled on the North American mainland in Newfoundland.

The Vikings had also landed at Greenland from around A.D. 985. These were Viking colonies which date from the 10th century. They survived for a few hundred years. They left behind wood and stones.

The timber that they left behind has given scientists a way to date when they were there and where the timber came from.

Tests on the wood not only show that they were sophisticated but at five Norse sites in Greenland analysis revealed that the timber came from northern Europe and North America.

The Vikings had established trading routes across the Northwest Atlantic.

Journeys were being made from Greenland and North America throughout the period of Norse settlement. Resources were being acquired by the Norse from North America for far longer than thought.

The timber analysis revealed that the wood came from trees such as Hemlock and Jack pine, which could only have come from America. The imported wood into Greenland has given the game away as to when the Vikings were active in the area.

And as mentioned in the first paragraph, we know that the forerunner of the Norwegian Forest cat was present in Norway at the time the Vikings were travelling to Greenland.

Therefore, it is perhaps reasonable to suggest that they may have carried with them ships’ cats, as domestic cat companions. And if that is the case it is possible that the Vikings introduced the domestic cat into North America for the first time in around A.D. 1000.

Of course, I’m speculating. Not on the Vikings’ presence in North America in those early years but whether they had the presence of mind to include a ship’s cat in the inventory!

Ship’s cats were very common many years ago and even during the Second and First World War because they helped to keep down rodent populations. Although the ships that the Vikings sailed were much smaller than today’s vessels. It is difficult to envisage rodents being on those ships but it’s possible. Perhaps as mentioned they had ships’ cats for company.

Source: I have referred to research published in the journal Antiquity as reported in The Times newspaper today, Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

Postscript: stretching the imagination slightly (greatly?), it is just possible that these first domestic cats in America became Maine Coon cats! Or at least some of them. And once again I’m talking about the forerunner to the Maine Coon cat not the present ones which are selectively bred by breeders in North America and in other parts of the world.

The supporting evidence for this is that the Maine Coon cat looks very much like the Norwegian Forest cat in general terms. Selective breeding has distinguished the two breeds more but there might have been a time when they were identical, the same cat.

The first domestic cats of North America

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