What was the first domesticated cat?

The question is asking for information about the world’s very first domestic cat. We don’t have that information. We have a rough idea when the North African wildcat was first domesticated but that is about it. The domestic cat’s skeleton is very, very similar to their wildcat ancestor. This makes it difficult to identify the exact time period of domestication of the wildcat. And this is about taking an African wildcat and befriending it to the point where the person can say that the cat was their pet. And the African wildcat is very similar in appearance to today’s tabby cat. There are differences but you can see visually that the African wildcat is the ancestor of today’s domestic cat.

African wildcat compared with domestic cat. Image: MikeB from images in the public domain.
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So, as mentioned we can guess when that first domestic cat existed and it is probably sometime around 9,500 years ago (and see below). This is based upon the oldest archaeological evidence of the fossil remains of a large cat on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus with the remains of their human companion it is believed. I guess the dating of the fossil is not precise because one book that I have tells me that the remains were estimated to be about 7,000 to 8,000 years old. Other sources tell me that they were 9,500 years old.

It should be noted though that these early cat pets were more tamed wildcats than domesticate companion animals. There is a difference. Taming is a conditioning of a wild animal while domesticating is more permanent and concerns a genetic modification and a lineage. True domestication probably took place around 4,000 years ago in ancient Egypt.

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

One study tells us that after recalibrating the dating they decided that a “wildcat phalanx” from the site of Klimonas on Cyprus “were introduced to Cyprus 11,000-10,500 BP. To the best of humankind’s knowledge these are the first connections between humans and cats as pets.

As Cyprus was an island where there were not cats on it at the time this very early domesticated wildcat must’ve been brought over on a boat with their human companion from the mainland which is Israel to the east. And further east and south was the Fertile Crescent where it is believed the first relatively extensive domestication took place. The size of the fossil Cyprus indicated that it must’ve been a North African wildcat a.k.a. near Eastern wildcat. This is a one-off piece of evidence.

The more consistent evidence is of domestic cats in human settlements found in Egyptian tombs dated around 4,000 BC which is about 6,000 years ago. Although, I suspect, in those early days of cat domestication there can’t have been that many domestic cats. All were spotted tabby cats. Perhaps around 4,000 years ago we can say that the earliest relatively common domestic cats existed as portrayed in Egyptian art.

There appears to be evidence lacking of cat domestication between 9,500-4,000 years ago. One study reported on the presence of cats that were dated between 5,560-5,280 cal B.P. The term ‘cal BP’ refers to “calibrated years before the present or “calendar years before the present”. It signifies that radiocarbon dating was used and has been corrected using current methodologies.

These cats were found in an early agricultural village of Quanhucun in Shaanxi, China. They were outside the distribution of the near Eastern wildcat and they were smaller than the Near Eastern wildcat but similar in size to modern domestic cats. The experts decided that the cat ate similar food to humans, namely millet-based foods. They also decided that the wildcat in that area were befriended to deal with rodents eating their stored grain because there were large ceramic containers designed to exclude rodents. Isotopic data showed that one cat ate less meat and consumed more millet-based foods than expected indicating that it scavenged was fed by people.

To the best of my knowledge, it was speculated in this study that these early domestic cats were domesticated Chinese desert cats or central Asian wildcats.

Chinese Mountain cat
Chinese Mountain cat. Photo: SONG DAZHAO/CFCA

To recap: we simply don’t have specific information about the exact first time a wildcat was domesticated in some way or other by, probably, a farmer. There must have been that moment when the world’s first domestic cat existed. And that time there were no other domestic cats, no feral cats and no stray cats. There were just genuine wildcats, one semi-domestic cat and the concept of domestic cats had not been envisaged or planned.

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