The History of Cats…And Where We Fit In…

Cat Prehistory

Cat history and the evolution of the cat dates back about 200 million years to when their earliest ancestors evolved from reptiles.

Miacis – a weasel-like forerunner of cats (and dogs).

Prehistoric remains of cats are few and far between but the dental pattern of modern day cats is similar to that found in fossilized creodonts – primitive fish-eating mammals which lived about 50 million years ago.

However, this genetic line failed to survive and there are no direct descendants today. At the same time, another group of animals called the miacids (which lived 40 – 50 million years ago) also had cat-like cutting teeth. These were small weasel-like forest-dwelling creatures. Not just cat history, but the history of all land dwelling carnivores can be traced back to these animals.

Even though everyone has heard about the “Sabre-toothed Tiger” or ancient cats – which had canine teeth 8 inches (20cm) or longer – this animal is not in fact related to the big cats found on Earth today. The last sabre toothed “cats” died out as recently as 30,000 years ago (based on fossil records in Britain) and possibly only 13,000 years ago (fossil records in California).

Fossils from 12 million years ago are similar to modern small cats. By 3 million years ago there were a wide variety of cats which populated the whole world except the Arctic, Antarctic, Australia and the inhospitable tundra regions. However, Australia does have some indigenous cat-like species e.g. the “marsupial cat“. [Click here for a more detailed profile of this animal].

Cat Characteristics

As well as being predators throughout cat history, there are some interesting characteristics that are thought to reflect the origin of the cat as a desert-dwelling creature. One of these is the ability of a cat’s kidneys to concentrate urine much more than other domesticated species e.g. dogs.

Cats also demonstrate some unique metabolic characteristics which set them aside from other domesticated animals. As a result they have a specific nutritional requirement for vitamin A and for the essential fatty acid, linolenic acid.

The History of Cats in The Ancient World

Before there was any companionable association between cats and humans, killer cats hunted our ancestors about 2.5 million years ago. But, thankfully, after a couple of millennia, things changed with our mutual association apparently beginning about 10,000 years ago.

Cat skeletons have been found in very early human settlements but archaeologists have assumed that they were wild cats. In all likelihood, the first time cats began associating with humans was toward the end of the Stone Age. It took many centuries, however, for the cat to become established as a domestic animal. About 5,000 years ago (3,000 B.C.) cats were accepted members of the households of Ancient Egypt. Many of the breeds we now know have evolved from these ancient cats.

Mummified Cat

This Egyptian cat was mummified and offered to a god over 2,000 years ago

The Egyptians used the cat to hunt fish and birds as well as to destroy the rats and mice that infested the grain stocks along the Nile. They called their cats “Mau” and adorned them with jewels and gold earrings.

The cat was considered so valuable that laws protected it, and eventually a cult of cat worship developed that lasted for more than 2,000 years. The cat goddess Bastet – whose name was also spelled Bast, Pasht, and many other ways – became one of the most sacred of all figures of worship. She was represented by the head of a cat. Soon all cats became sacred to the Egyptians, and all were well cared for.

If someone killed a cat, the punishment was usually death. When a pet cat died, its Egyptian master shaved off his eyebrows as a sign of mourning. After a cat’s death, its body was mummified and buried along with mummified mice and saucers of milk in special cemeteries. One cemetery found in the 1800s contained the preserved bodies of more than 300,000 cats.

Skulls found in Egyptian cat burial grounds mainly come from the species Felis libyca which at that time was a wild cat that inhabited Asia and North Africa. This desert-living cat is now thought to have been the main ancestor of the domestic cats we have today. Migration and interbreeding with native cats resulted (in Europe) in the emergence of a thicker set domestic cat – similar to the European Wild Cat (Felis silvestris).

But the Egyptians may not have been the first people to domesticate the cat. The remains of the world’s oldest pet cat was discovered with the remains of a human in a 9,500-year-old grave on Cyprus, which means the cat was alive 4,000 years before the appearance of the Egyptians. The burial of the cat with a human makes a strong case that cats had a special place in the daily lives, and in the afterlives of, the people on the island.

Cat Domestication

An Egyptian figure of a cat dating from about 900BC.

The Egyptians had strict laws prohibiting the export of cats; however, because cats were valued in other parts of the world for their rat-catching prowess, they were taken by the Greeks and Romans to most parts of Europe. Naturally, humans would have selected cats with a docile nature and kept those that responded positively to human behavior. From North Africa, domestication of cats spread through the Middle East, India and into China but human settlements in Europe didn’t have domesticated cats until the Romans introduced them much later. While cats didn’t reach Japan until 999 A.D., they were prized as pets as well as rodent catchers.

Paintings and inscriptions of cats from 2,000BC, in Egypt, suggest that they were living with humans as domesticated animals at that time and later the cat became an important religious symbol, even being buried in their own cemeteries.

Cats were kept on ships to control the rodent population and, as a result, the seafaring explorers from Europe carried and introduced domesticated cats all over the world.

Cats In The Middle Ages

The history of cats took a nasty turn in Europe during the Middle Ages. Cats became an object of superstition and were associated with evil. People who kept cats were suspected of wickedness and were often put to death along with their animals.

In the 13th century, the first witchcraft trials began. The pagan religions held that witches turned into cats and so cats were blamed for everything from souring the beer to spreading disease. It was commonly believed that their teeth contained venom and that their breath caused disease and infection. Any cat that was seen in the company of an old woman was assumed to be a witch’s familiar. Hundreds of unfortunate cats were burned alive by people who believed they did the work of the devil.

Witch's Familiar
One Witch astride her broom, whip in hand and a somewhat lighter-than-air Cat trying to stay aside her broom. Images such as these woodcuts were used to portray the association of cats with witches and witchcraft.

Pope Gregory IX declared the cat to be a “Diabolical Creature”. Cats were hunted, tortured, and sacrificed. On religious feast days, large numbers of cats were sometimes burned alive as part of the celebrations. Live cats were sealed inside the walls of houses and other buildings as they were being constructed, in the belief that this would bring good luck. As the cat population dwindled, the disease-carrying rat population increased, a factor that contributed greatly to the spread of plagues like the Black Death and other epidemics throughout Europe. In fact the domestic cat population of Europe came close to being wiped out.

By the 17th century the cat had begun to regain its former place as a companion animal and a controller of rodents. Cardinal Richelieu, in France, was noted for his love of cats. Many writers, particularly in France and England, started keeping them as pets and writing about their good qualities. It became fashionable to own and breed cats, especially the long-haired varieties.

By the late 1800s, cat shows were held in England and the United States and cat fanciers’ organizations were established. Many of the superstitions that arose during the period of cat persecution, however, are still evident today in the form of such sayings as “A black cat crossing your path brings bad luck.”

North American Cat History

Although there were many varieties of wild cats in North America, there was no history of cat domestication until 1749 with the arrival of Europeans. Cats, suffering the long journey by sea, were imported to control the rodent populations in the settlements. Cat history was made and they and their descendents became as favored as pets in the New World as in the Old. Some 60 million cats now populate the U.S.

Art and Cat History

Felix The Cat

Felix The Cat

Cats have been portrayed in the works of many great artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer, Paul Gauguin, Theodore Gericault, William Hogarth, Edouard Manet, and Pablo Picasso. Probably the best-known cat in the world is Felix the Cat, star of animated cartoon films. Other famous cartoon cats include Krazy Kat and Tom (of Tom and Jerry), both of which had mice for companions. Musicians such as Gioacchino Rossini and Maurice Ravel have also paid homage to the cat in compositions.

Fables and tales about cats are part of humanity’s culture. Versions of the Puss in Boots fable occur in almost every language, and the tale of Dick Whittington and his cat is well known. The personality and beauty of cats has inspired many poets.

  • Ode to Spot as composed by Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation

Cat History Now

So where does Egypt’s beloved cat stand today? It is estimated that today there are over 60 million cats in America, alone. More than 70,000 cats and dogs are born each day due to uncontrolled breeding. Many cats have never experienced the luxury of a warm lap and lead hard, cruel, short, tortured lives as strays. Of cats placed in shelters, 75% are euthanized because there is no room or funds to care for them. While we cannot guess at the fate of the cat a thousand years from now, perhaps we can aid in shaping their future world.

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