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2019-03-22 18:00:33   •   ID: 2088

Humans and Cats: The Prehistory of a Special Relationship

Figure 1
A large genetic Study revealed five clusters, or lineages, of wildcats (Felis silvestris). Four of these lineages corresponded exactly with four of the known subspecies of wildcats.

The fifth lineage, however, included not only the fifth known subspecies of wildcat-Felis silvestris lybica, the Levantino-African subspecies-but also the hundreds of domestic cats that were sampled from the U.S., the U.K. and Japan (Driscoll et al. 2007, Geigl and Grange 2018).

The wild ancestor of all domestic cats is therefore Felis silvestris lybica (Figure 1; GNU Free Documentation License; Wikipedia)

Wildcats are largely nocturnal and solitary, except during the breeding period and when females have young. The size of home ranges of females and males varies according to terrain, the availability of food, habitat quality, and the age structure of the population.

Wildcats are solitary, territorial hunters and lack a hierarchical social structure, features that make them poor candidates for domestication.

Indeed, zooarchaeological evidence points to a commensal relationship between cats and humans lasting thousands of years before humans exerted substantial influence on their breeding.

Throughout this period of commensal interaction, tamed and domestic cats became feral and/or intermixed with wild. F. s. lybica or other wild subspecies as is common today
” (Ottoni 2017).

Ottoni et al have published a pretty clear picture on the early Genetics and the worldwide spread of the cat:” Both the Near Eastern and Egyptian populations of Felis silvestris lybica contributed to the gene pool of the domestic cat at different historical times.

While the cat’s worldwide conquest began during the Neolithic period in the Near East, its dispersal gained momentum during the Classical period (- during historic times about 1000 BC-), when the Egyptian cat successfully spread throughout the Old World.

The expansion patterns and ranges suggest dispersal along human maritime and terrestrial routes of trade and connectivity
” (Ottoni et al. 2017).

Compared with the complicated domestication of cats, the domestication of the dogs, a tight companion of humans, occurred much earlier, due to their specific social structures and because dogs were extremely helpful within a hunting Society.

Paleogenetic data suggests that European wolves became dogs somewhere around 19 to 32 k.a. BP.

At least some Late Pleistocene humans regarded dogs not only as a companion for the hunt, but may have developed emotional and caring bonds for them, as evidenced by famous late Paleolithic dog from Bonn-Oberkassel (Janssens et al. 2018).

10 k.a. ago, permanent human settlements, the beginnings of agriculture and increasing storage of grains created stimuli and opportunities for cats to hunt house mice.

It is suggested that F. s. lybica is hardly afraid of humans, compared to other wild cats, and that people were hardly afraid by these small charming animals, which presented themselves as "optimal" new members of the household. Self-domestication may have played an important role in this process.

It is unclear if osteometric parameter allow a separation between wild and domesticated cats, therefore Archaeological context becomes more important.

Indeed, Archaeologists have focused on interactions between man and cats that go beyond utilitarianism and mayindicate a special symbolic relationship.

Figure 2
Early evidence for men-cat associations were detected at the Cypriot pre-pottery sites of Shillourokambos and Khirokitia (Figure 2; personal photo from 2002).

Here, animal burials as well as faunal remains of cats deposited in human burials have been discovered.

At Shillourokambos the remains of an 8-month-old cat buried with its presumed human owner was excavated evidencing emotional relationship between people and cats around 9300 years ago.

Linseele et al. described a Predynastic cat burial from Hierakonpolis, dating to ca 3,7 k.a. BC.

The left humerus and right femur of the cat show healed fractures indicating that the animal may have had been held in captivity for at least 4-6 weeks prior to its burial. This features may indicate an early taming event.

While these findings may be ambiguous, paintings from the Egyptian New Kingdom, which began nearly 3,600 years ago provide the oldest known unmistakable depictions of full domestication.

These paintings show in abundance that cats had become full members of Egyptian households by this time.