Categories: first domestic cat

How did the cat become domesticated?

For a long time, people believed that the first cat was domesticated in ancient Egypt about 3,500 years ago. There are lots of records of domestic cats of that time as we well know. This information is still disseminated on the Internet by well-established websites. However, the theory was challenged about 10 years ago when, with the help of molecular biology, the remains of domestic and wild cats were distinguished and domestic cats were dated to around 10,000 years ago i.e. 8,000 BCE (‘Before the Common Era’ aka BC).

First domestic cat in Cyprus grave. Photo in public domain.

Hunter gatherers first became farmers around 12,000 years ago as well. It is highly unlikely that hunter gatherers would have had domestic cats but conversely it is highly likely that the beginnings of cat domestication arrived at a similar time to the commencement of farming.

The domestication of the cat would have happened in several places simultaneously, which were widely separated but which appear to be mainly in the Middle East. Fortunately, evidence of the first domestication was found on the island of Cyprus (see photo above), where the earliest remains of cats were found within the first permanent human settlement on that island dating about 7,500 years BCE or about 9,500 years ago. This island has never been joined to the mainland even when sea levels were at their lowest.

Therefore the animal and human population would have travelled to Cyrus on boats some 12,000 years ago. These would have been primitive and quite small boats. At that time there were no domesticated animals in the Eastern Mediterranean except for domesticated dogs. Cats found on Cyprus dating back to 10,000 years ago would have had to been taken by people on boats and would have had to been either domesticated, semi-domesticated or perhaps just captive wildcats (to be domesticated). It is believed that the cats would not have arrived at the island on their own by being stowaways because they would have been too conspicuous on small boats.

Map showing Cyprus by PoC.

It is concluded, therefore, that when people settled on the island Cyprus it is likely that they brought with them wild cats that they had captured and tamed on the mainland of the Eastern Mediterranean. This would imply, too, that the domestication of the cat was widespread on the mainland of the Eastern Mediterranean. It was probably an established practice. And there is evidence of prehistoric importations of tamed cats to other large Mediterranean islands such as Majorca, Sardinia and Crete.

And the reason why these domesticated cats were deliberately imported into Cyprus was to control house mice infestations. These were the early days of farming and it is assumed that the mice may have been accidentally transported to the islands on those small boats in sacks of food or seedcorn. They became established in Cyprus and the colonisers of that island were obliged to bring in cats to control their numbers.

The importation of cats to Cyprus may have happened up to hundred years after the first settlers arrived. Perhaps the mice problem became too pressing to be ignored so they decided to deal with it in the only way possible at the time. It is probable that the same use of domesticated wildcats was taking place on the mainland at this time.

Spotted cats of Cyprus

It is suggested that the farmers on Cyprus would have tethered the cats to stop them running freely over the island and wreaking havoc on the native fauna. They did, in fact, spread over the island over several centuries of human settlements and remained there for several thousand years.

Comparing African wildcat and domestic tabby cat appearance

We also know that the specific species of wildcat which was domesticated is the current North African wildcat (also known as the African-Asian wildcat) which looks very much like a modern slender brown tabby cat. They can almost be indistinguishable except the wildcat is fighting fit and the average brown tabby domestic cat is more rounded or let’s say tends to be a little overweight.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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