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    Timeline of Feline Domestication

    Timeline of Feline Domestication

    As British author Terry Pratchett once said: "In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this." If we're seeking someone to blame for fostering this lofty feline attitude, we need look no further than the ancient Egyptians, who not only adored their cats but also deified them. Over the years, archaeologists and historians have unearthed treasures depicting the lifestyle of those who lived along the banks of the Nile thousands of years ago, including paintings showing cats in very domestic situations: sitting on chairs, eating out of bowls, and even wearing collars. These researchers of the past have also found paintings and statues of the common cat's depiction as the incarnation of the goddess Bast.

    Because of this, researchers long theorized that the Egyptians were responsible for the first domesticated cats. However, archaeological finds since the turn of the twenty-first century, coupled with the latest genetic research (see above), have led to a revision of the domestication timeline and place, showing that feline domestication in fact predates this Egyptian adulation by some 4,000 years. This research has zeroed in on the Middle Eastern Fertile Crescent (the agricultural region often dubbed the Cradle of Civilization), as well as on the equally fertile Indus Valley between India and Pakistan and the lush banks of the Yellow River in China. Consequently, history books are currently being rewritten to state that feline domestication is synonymous with the history of agriculture.

    Because these three areas all had excellent water sources, history documents that nomadic tribes started to put down roots there, building permanent homes to raise their livestock and to cultivate the land. Consequently, the precursors of today's domestic cats, with their penchant for hunting small animals such as rats and mice, realized that they could find an endless supply of food in these settlements. It was the perfect symbiotic relationship. So the settlers encouraged the cats to stay and keep the stores of grains and food intact from rodent scavengers. Some cats adapted to this living arrangement and became tame.

    In 2004, French archaeologists Professor Jean Guilaine, of the Centre d'Anthropologie in Toulouse, France, and Dr. Jean-Denis Vigne, of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, unearthed what is now thought to be the earliest evidence of humans keeping cats as pets. On the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, archaeologists discovered a grave, believed to be approximately 9,500 years old, containing human remains, a collection of various items such as crude tools and seashells, and the skeleton of a cat of about eight months old. The body of the cat faced west in similar conformation to the human remains.

    Mummified Cats

    So many mummified cats were excavated from Bubastis and other Egyptian excavation sites during the 1900s that they were shipped by the boatload to England and Europe, where they were ground up and used as fertilizer. Some that were later discovered intact are now on display in the Natural History Museum in London.

    The cat specimen closely resembled the African wildcat. Vigne and his team concluded that because cats were not indigenous to the islands in the Mediterranean, early felines must have been taken there by boat. This, coupled with the burial discovery, suggested that a human–animal bond existed between people and cats.

    Other pertinent discoveries include an ivory cat statuette found in the Fertile Crescent that also suggests that cats were commonplace in the homes of the settlers there. Furthermore, teams working near Baghdad and in Israel found remains of a house mouse, Mus musculus domesticus, that was thought to have been an ideal source of food for felines that lived around people because this species of mouse was unable to thrive in nature and gravitated to human homes and grain silos.

    Since these archaeological finds, scientists and geneticists-including Leslie Lyons and Carlos Driscoll-have conducted independent research and concluded that feline domestication began in the Cradle of Civilization and spread out to places such as Egypt over thousands of years. These scientists managed to more accurately plot the timeline of feline domestication, which now indicates that images, paintings, and mummified remains of cats found in Egypt could be about 6,000 years younger than the remains of the cat found on Cyprus. Although ancient Egyptians are no longer considered the originators of feline domestication, they did play a crucial role in the domestication process, giving cats the status that they still have in our lives today.

    From the Old World to the New

    There's no question that cats had their historical heyday during the era of the New Kingdom, some 3,000 years ago, when the Egyptians literally put cats on pedestals and worshipped them. Egyptians believed that the common cat was the incarnation of Bast, the goddess of fertility, love, pleasure, and dance and protector from all evil. By day, she appeared with the head of a cat and the body of a woman and rode through the sky with her father, the sun god Ra. At night, she was known as Bastet and could transform completely into a cat. With her amazing night vision, she protected Ra against his greatest enemy, the serpent Apep.

    Archaeologists found a 9,500-year-old grave containing a man and a cat in Cyprus. Cats still roam the island today.

    temple built in Bast's honor in the city of Bubastis was adorned with cat statues and became home to many cats. When they died, they were mummified and buried in the temple. Such was Bast's influence that Egyptian law forbade killing or hurting a cat; the punishment for such a crime was death. The Egyptians were so devoted to their cats that, for centuries, it was even against the law to export them. They were, however, smuggled out by Phoenician traders, first to Greece and then later to destinations throughout the Roman Empire.

    According to German-born Frederick Zeuner (1905–1963), a distinguished archaeologist at the University of London's Institute of Archaeology and author of A History of Domesticated Animals (1963), the coming of Christianity to Egypt loosened the restrictions on the exportation of sacred animals and allowed the barter and exchange of cats with the Romans. After the fall of the Roman Empire, which extended across Britain and western Europe, came the Early Middle Ages (fifth to tenth century AD). During this period, numerous Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were established in Britain. A large number of cat remains have been excavated from these Saxon sites, leading researchers to believe that the domestic cat was introduced to this area by the Roman conquerors and lived on with the Saxons.

    During this period, the value of the cat was stated in the famous Laws of Hywel Dda, the Welsh king who lived in the early 900s. His laws were translated into modern English in the nineteenth century and revealed "the price of a cat is four pence. Her qualities are to see, to hear, to kill mice, to have her claws whole, and to nurse and not devour her kittens. If she is deficient in any one of these qualities, one third of her price must be returned."

    Throughout the Middle Ages, cats were included on voyages of discovery and trade expeditions to do the same job as they did in the Fertile Crescent: keep vermin and snakes at bay. This penchant for pest control helped the domesticated feline conquer the world. Despite the atrocities of the Papal Inquisition during this time, which led to the killing of cats as so-called servants of Satan and evil witches (see chapter 3 for a further discussion on cats and religion), many people considered it good luck to have cats aboard ship, and cats consequently traveled far and wide. Christopher Columbus reportedly had cats on his ships when he set sail to find a shorter route to India in 1492 and ran into what would be called the New World (later, the Americas). The colonists who established Jamestown, Virginia (1607), and the pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower (1620) were also said to have brought cats with them for luck and pest control.

    Bastet was an Egyptian goddess who is depicted as a cat or as a cat-headed woman.

    From The Cat Bible, Copyright by Sandy Robins, licensed through ContentOro, Inc and used by arrangement with I-5 Press

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