How did cats first become domesticated? And when did they become popular worldwide? We investigate their journey from wild predators to close companions of humankind.
We tend to think of our cats as one of the family. But it hasn’t always been that way! Pet cats may be a staple of modern life, but they began their evolutionary journey as untamed hunters. However, after forming a mutually beneficial bond with early human societies, cats have lived alongside people ever since, and the history of cats has become entwined with our own.
How cats were domesticated
Modern domestic (pet) cats are all thought to share one common ancestor: a small wildcat whose descendants can still be found living in Africa, Europe and Central Asia today. These cats were native to the area known as the Fertile Crescent, which curves along the River Nile in North Africa and across the Middle East.
The relatively lush and fertile terrain across this region not only provided a habitat for plants and animals to flourish, but was also the perfect incubator for many early human civilisations.
Cats in Ancient Egypt
It was once believed that cats were first domesticated in Ancient Egypt, some 4,000 years ago. However, while cats were certainly popular and revered in Ancient Egyptian culture, their close relationship with humankind is likely to date back far earlier. In Cyprus, human remains dating from around 9,500 years ago were found to have been deliberately buried with those of a cat. So clearly, people and cats were already living (and dying) alongside each other by this point in cat history.
Some experts believe that the domestication of cats in the Fertile Crescent may have begun as far back as 12,000 years ago, during an agricultural boom in the region, particularly in Egypt and Syria. Human settlements, grain cultivation and an abundance of food no doubt bolstered the populations of rodents and small animals. Naturally, this would have attracted a large number of cats to prey upon this ample food supply.
From here, the mutual advantages for cats and humans of living in close proximity were probably clear – just as they had been earlier in history for humans and dogs. Cats were essentially seen as security guards for food in homes and grain stores, and were rewarded as such. Ancient Egyptian culture cemented cats’ position in human society, endlessly capturing their image in art, mummifying cats alongside important humans, and even worshipping cat goddesses like Bastet.
The spread of domesticated cats
By the time the Ancient Egyptian empire was eventually assimilated into that of the Romans, cats were already conquering the world. The Romans and Ancient Greeks had long been trading with other kingdoms, such as Egypt and Phoenicia. The practice of using domesticated cats as pest control spread from the Fertile Crescent to the Mediterranean civilisations, and from there, to the rest of Europe.
At around the time of Ancient Egypt’s collapse, domesticated cats had also begun to make inroads in more distant parts of the world, including India, and even Japan. Here, cats initially became fashionable as pets for the rich and ruling classes.
Cats in the Middle Ages
Domestic cats had seemingly secured a permanent place in human society as both efficient hunters and valued companions. But the history of cats and humans hasn’t always been totally harmonious. Cats have always attracted myths and superstition – including an association with witchcraft – which has sometimes led to their persecution.
During the 14th century, when the Black Death killed millions of people across Europe, North Africa and Asia, many people believed that cats or dogs were the harbingers of the disease. The Lord Mayor of London, and other European leaders, even called for these animals to be killed to halt the plague’s deadly spread. In fact, the most recent research has suggested that human fleas and body lice were the major agents of its spread.
Despite bad press like this, cats continued to live whisker by jowl with people. And as Europeans began to impose colonisation on other continents and explore new trade routes, many ocean-going ships kept cats on board in order to protect themselves from pests and pest-borne diseases. A ship’s cat came to be seen as lucky, and was often cherished by the crew. Wherever people went, cats went, too – including the New World of the Americas.
With their close links to humanity, and their finely evolved hunting skills, it’s no wonder that cats have become as popular with people as they have. And, in many parts of the world, the companionship, affection and emotional rewards that cats bring into our lives have overtaken their original value to us as pest controllers and food protectors.
Today, there are almost one billion domestic cats worldwide, with just under 12 million in the UK alone, and an ever-increasing variety of breeds. Yet in many respects – including their physical agility, super-sharp senses and hunting prowess – our pet cats have changed relatively little from their wild cousins. And since cats still appear to live with us very much on their own terms, we can only assume that the relationship suits them, too!