Eighty thousand wildcats buried on banks of Nile

In ancient Egypt, during the cult of Bastet, when the cat was elevated to a god around 1000 to 2000 BC, hundreds of thousands of cats were buried along the banks of the River Nile in great cat cemeteries which contained huge underground vaults. The cats became mummified. It is astonishing to think that 99.9% of these cats were tamed African-Asian wildcats. The Latin name for this cat is Felis silvestris lybica.

Mummified 4-5 month old kitten. X-ray image credit: Giacomo Gnudi et al

Mummified 4-5 month old kitten.
X-ray image credit: Giacomo Gnudi et al

In 1888 a farmer dug into a vault containing thousands of mummified cats. The place was Beni Hasan (an Ancient Egyptian cemetery site). It was discovered that the farmer had accidentally bumped into 80,000 mummified cats. They weighed nineteen tons. We know the weight because a local businessman hired people to strip the cloth and dried fur from the bones so that the remains could be used commercially. The remains were shipped to Manchester, England to be ground up for fertiliser.

It is fortunate that a very small number of the skeletons survived this profit making project. They were examined by scientists. Eighty-nine skulls were dated to 1000-2000 BC. Of these only four or five were believed to be the remains of the jungle cat (Felis chaus) a small wild cat that looks like the purebred Abyssinian cat. The rest were African-Asian wildcats.

A box of cat remains from 600-200 BC in the British Museum contained 192 cats, 7 mongooses, 3 dogs and a fox. Three of the skulls were from the jungle cat and the remainder African-Asian wildcats.

The ancient Egyptians tamed and domesticated wildcats. The African-Asian wildcat is fortunately easier to tame than the Scottish or European wildcat, which are virtually untameable. Even so the African-Asian wildcat is a handful when trying to domestic it. They are difficult to handle.

A veteran South African zoologist Reay Smithers (working during the first half of the 20th century) kept several pure African wildcats. He reported that:

“the progeny of Komani (his adult cat) were….unhandleable, spitting and scratching and diving for cover when approached..”

It seems that the ancient Egyptians were enormously patient with their cats! When the wild cat was mated with a domestic cat the offspring were much more domesticated and became ” splendid house cats”.

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