It’s a point worth making. You hear a lot about the first domestic cats coming into being about 10,000 years ago. These are the first N. African wildcats who befriended humans and vice versa; both benefiting in an act of ‘commensalism’ as it is called. These early pet cats were tamed wildcats. Their behaviour had been modified so that they were able to accept being around people without being frightened. Taming is the modification of behaviour of individual animals.
Domestication is when, over thousands of years, there is a genetic modification and a lineage which results in pet cats being born with an inbuilt predisposition towards being domesticated via socialisation. It is an alteration of their genetic make-up. So, there is a difference between taming and domestication.
It’s important to remember this because when we think of the first domestic cats, say in Cyprus, 9500 years ago, we shouldn’t be visualising your typical domestic cat. This was a flighty North African wildcat probably prone to biting and scratching and probably quite difficult to live with but all the same the companion of a man living on the island of Cyprus. Think about living with a serval today. It would have been similar. Living with a tame serval isn’t easy.
This man must have taken a boat from the mainland in the east (now Syria) with his pet cat to Cyprus. That is the only way the animal could have been on that island because there were no wild cat species on the island and never have been actually.
It is only perhaps around 4,000 years ago that the ancient Egyptians truly domesticated the wildcat. Therefore, the true, first domestic cats lived with ancient Egyptians and they were all large mackerel tabbies and random bred. We know they were true pets by the epitaphs:
It’s interesting to think that every domestic cat in ancient Egypt were brown, mackerel/spotted tabby cats. They would have been quite slender. There would have been no domestic cat obesity in those days. I think we’ve got used to seeing domestic cats as being quite rotund or what is called ‘cobby’ in the cat fancy language.
But the North African wildcat is a slender creature with quite long legs and these early domesticated cats would have had a similar appearance. The ancient Egyptians were the first cat breeders but they did it partly to produce cats for sacrifice; a gross form of animal abuse I am afraid to say. Of course, it is tricky to judge a race of people by modern standards.
The evidence of one of the first ‘domestic cats’ a tamed wildcat:
Ironically, and perhaps appropriately, there are more cats on Cyprus than there are people in 2022. They have a “cat problem”. These are predominantly community cats, living outside on a warm island. No doubt the pleasant ambient temperature, but sometimes very hot, together with a lax attitude towards spaying and neutering, has predisposed the island to having so many cats. I guess they are a tourist attraction during the tourist season but when it’s over their numbers probably irritate some residents. I suspect that, as is the case in Greece, there is cat abuse in the off season. In Greece they poison community cats.
It might be argued that Cyprus provides us with a snapshot of the progression of the domestication of the cat from a single cat to too many indicating a failure in the domestication of the cat. I think that we have to admit to ourselves that the domestication of the cat has been a failure when bearing in mind the huge number of homeless, feral cats. This was never the intention. It was meant to be a mutually beneficial arrangement but we now have hundreds of millions of hungry, distressed and miserable feral cats on the planet because of sloppy human behaviour and a disregard for the sentience of animals.
Below are some more articles on cat history.