Until now, historians thought the ancient Egyptians first domesticated cats about 4000 years ago. But evidence suggests cats were culturally important outside Egypt long before that. Stone and clay figurines of cats up to 10,000 years old have turned up in Syria, Turkey and Israel.
And archaeologists have found cat bones more than 9000 years old on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which has no native feline species.
“The first discovery of cat bones on Cyprus showed that human beings brought cats from the mainland to the islands, but we could not decide if these cats were wild or tame,” says Jean-Denis Vigne of the French research organisation CNRS and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.
Now Vigne and his colleagues have discovered the remains of a Neolithic cat at the ancient village of Shillourokambos in Cyprus, and the manner of its burial suggests the animal was a pet.
The cat belonged to the species Felis silvestris, the wild cat from which domestic cats descended. Its remains lie just 40 centimetres from a 9500-year-old human grave containing valuable offerings such as polished stones and seashells.
Furthermore, the human and cat skeletons have identical states of preservation. The skeletons were positioned symmetrically, with both heads pointing west, which may have been intentional.
The cat died when it was about eight months old, and while the cause of death is a mystery, there are no signs on the bones that the animal was butchered for food.
Vigne thinks the proximity of the human skeleton suggests a strong bond with the cat, which might have been killed to go to the grave with its master. It would have made sense for early agricultural societies to mingle with cats, he adds, because cats could have killed the mice that nibbled precious grain supplies.
Journal reference: Science (vol 304, p 259)