At what date can we say that the domestic cat existed in North America? I think it’s an important subject because the United States is the greatest country in the world for the domestic cat in 2020. Historically, we are told, that there were no domestic cats in North America before European settlers emigrated to the continent, beginning when they founded a colony at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. They brought with them the occasional ship’s cat, perhaps a long-haired cat with more than the usual toes so that they could navigate the heaving deck more ably!
2,000 years ago?
So, the first domestic cats of America existed about 400 years ago and some of them became champion Maine Coons via farmers’ barn cats. But is that correct? Research indicates that Native Americans kept pets but they were utilitarian animals which means that they were dogs. Thousands of years ago the dog was domesticated before the cat because they were perceived as more useful. My research indicates that Native Americans did not keep cats as pets except there is an article on the mental floss.com website by SHAUNACY FERRO which hints of the possibility that Native Americans might have domesticated bobcats 2,000 years ago.
This seems eminently feasible because I recently wrote an article about the doyen of the early days of the cat fancy, Miss Frances Simpson, who went to the very earliest of American cat shows in the late 1800s at which she saw domesticated wild cat species, namely, the bobcat, the margay and the ocelot. The latter cannot be properly domesticated as it is too aggressive and wild. The margay can be domesticated as can the bobcat. Today you will see bobcats in the arms of people loudly declaring to the world that they are cosy, cuddly cat companions. Mrs Frances Simpson reported in her book The Book of the Cat that the example that she saw at a cat show indicated to her that they can be domesticated successfully.
The suggestion that Native Americans kept the occasional American bobcat as a pet was arrived at by discovering the remains of a young bobcat in Western Illinois. The young cub had been laid to rest in a burial mound near the Illinois River. It was wearing a necklace of bear teeth and shells. The remains were discovered in the 1980s. They were thought to have been the remains of a dog but on re-analysing them researchers affiliated with several Illinois institutions and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology discovered that the kitten’s remains is perhaps the first wild cat burial documented in America. At the time the Hopewell Native Americans lived in the region. It is suggested that they might have tamed the young bobcat. The cat had been buried near several human funeral mounds and appears not to have been a sacrifice.
The discovery bears similarity to the 9,500-year-old fossil of a domesticated wildcat (almost certainly a North African wildcat) with it’s human companion in Cyprus which is believed to be the oldest example of cat domestication on the planet.
I would like to challenge the fact that Native Americans may have domesticated the bobcat 2,000 years ago. It may have happened years before based upon an article in The Times newspaper today, Thursday, July 23, 2020. The article says that man reached America up to 30,000 years ago.
There is a cave high in the Sierra Madre and in that cave there is sediment and amongst the sediment there are sharp stone flakes, stone age tools, indicating that the traditional understanding of migration into North America happened well before we had thought and as far back as 30,000 years ago.
For many years it had been believed that the Clovis people had been the first to travel to a virgin North America. They travelled down from Alaska in a corridor free of ice 13,000 years ago. But the caves in Sierre Madre showed signs of occupation from between 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. The occupants were adapted to altitudes and the mountain landscape.
Did they arrive by crossing the Bering Strait which was a continuous landscape at that time? There is no evidence to suggest it but it is conceivable that these very early Native Americans, on occasions, tamed an American bobcat which has been on the continent for about 20,000 years.
The major barrier to the possibility that the first domestic cat existed in North America is that, by pure chance of evolution, a wild cat species with an optimal personality and size was unavailable to Native Americans thousand years ago. Except of course for the bobcat which although not totally optimal can be domesticated.
Of course, there are probably many domesticated American bobcats living with people today. I am sure that they are in successful relationships. However, living with a wild cat or wild cat hybrid is not the same as living with a true domestic cat. But back in the day, if Native Americans lived with bobcats occasionally as pets, then it was different because they were living outside. They were semi-domesticated and under that arrangement it was probably a more successful relationship.