by John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
Since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians, cats have been cherished as companions, worshipped as idols, and kept as agents of pest control and good luck. But now French archaeologists have found evidence that our close relationship with cats may have begun much earlier.
The carefully interred remains of a human and a cat were found buried with seashells, polished stones, and other decorative artifacts in a 9,500-year-old grave site on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This new find, from the Neolithic village of Shillourokambos, predates early Egyptian art depicting cats by 4,000 years or more.Jean-Denis Vigne, an archaeologist with the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and colleagues describe the find in tomorrow’s edition of the research journal Science. The researchers write that the joint burial indicates a strong association between the human and cat and that the feline is possibly the world’s oldest known pet cat.
“The process and timing of cat domestication has been terrifically difficult to document,” said Melinder Zeder, a curator of Old World archaeology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and president of the International Council for Archaeozoology.
“In the absence of a collar around its neck, the deliberate interment of this animal with a human makes a strong case that cats had a special place in the daily lives, and in the afterlives, of residents of Shillourokambos,” Zeder said.
Most early evidence of cat domestication comes from ancient Egypt. Some experts believe that the Egyptians may have tamed and bred felines to produce a distinct species by the 20th or 19th century B.C.
Cats are frequently represented in Egyptian mythology in the form of the feline goddesses Bastet, Sekhmet, and other deities. Cat art and mummified remains are known from as far back as 4,000 years ago.
But researchers have also stumbled across hints that cats were domesticated much earlier. Experts have found 10,000-year-old engravings and pottery that depict cats dating to the Neolithic period (late Stone Age), Vigne said. He notes such finds provide evidence that, even then, cats had a spiritual significance.
More recently, cat jawbones and other remains not directly linked to human burials have revealed that wild cats were at least associated with early Neolithic settlements on Cyprus, Vigne said.
Cats are not native to Cyprus, an island 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) south of mainland Turkey. Given that fact, researchers behind today’s announcement write that humans must have introduced cats to the island. Whether or not early peoples domesticated the species remains unclear, the researchers write, noting that foxes were also introduced at the same time.
Zeder, the Smithsonian curator, notes that the difficulty in determining precisely when cats were first domesticated is that cats were likely “commensal domesticates.” The phrase describes animals like mice, rats, sparrows, and early dogs, among others, that weren’t raised by people but nonetheless were attracted to human habitations.
Such animals feed on stored food or trash or they prey on other commensals. Which is why finding cat remains in or near ancient human settlements doesn’t necessarily imply the animals had been adopted as pets.
To complicate the issue, domestic cats are physically very similar to their wild counterparts and cannot easily be distinguished on that basis, said Zeder, who also serves on the board of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration.
“What makes this [new] find special, is [the cat’s] intentional placement with a human burial,” Zeder said.
The cat and human remains described in today’s announcement were unearthed in 2001. The grave also contained offerings such as ochre and flint tools, axes, and seashells.
A combination of factors is seen as evidence that the cat and human were intentionally buried together including the good state of preservation of both remains, the burial of an entire cat without any signs of butchering, and the proximity of the skeletons—just 40 centimeters (16 inches) apart. Analysis suggests that the cat was just eight months old at death and was possibly killed in order to be buried alongside the human.
“The first discovery of cat bones on Cyprus showed that human beings brought cats from the mainland to the islands. But we couldn’t decide if these cats were wild or tame,” said study author Vigne. “With this discovery, we can now decide that cats were linked with humans.”
He notes that wild cats may have been drawn to settlements where grain stores attracted rats and mice. Perhaps people soon realized they could perhaps use the felines to control these pests.
Cats may have been one of many animals “intentionally transported to Cyprus as some kind of gamestocking plan,” Zeder said, noting that the research by Vigne and his colleagues reveals that many non-native wild animals—including pigs, goats, deer, and cattle—were transported to Cyprus “on a kind of Noah’s ark.”
The scientists’ findings also reveal that the residents of the ancient village of Shillourokambos were beginning domestication experiments with many such livestock species.
“[Perhaps] it’s not surprising to find evidence of taming cats and their habituation with human settlements at such an early date,” Zeder added. “What’s really surprising is that we haven’t seen more of this kind of association at an earlier time.”
In contrast to cats, intentional burials of dogs and puppies with humans occurred earlier and have been more common in the archaeological record. The earliest are known from the Natufian stage, 12,000 years ago in Israel.