For much of our history together the story of how cats came to share their spaces with humans was shrouded in mystery. The reigning theory has been that domestication began with African wildcats who began following the growing agricultural communities of the Nile some 4000 years ago. However, the recent discovery of a burial site in the Neolithic village of Shillourokambos turned that assumption on its ear. 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 discovery meant that our intimate relationship with cats began some 4000 years before the Egyptians tamed the African wildcat.
The domestication of cats has been notoriously hard to pin down simply because cats have not changed much in 9,000 years. Whereas the domestication of dogs can be somewhat mapped in the evolutionary changes of dogs themselves, cats apparently, felt no compulsion to do so. With their combination of independence, visual appeal and stealth hunting ability, they somehow managed to reap the benefits of human companionship without doing much in the evolutionary way to ingratiate themselves.
In search of some answers as to when and how cats came to live among us, researchers compiled the DNA of over 200 cat remains and found that the modern house cat emerged from two distinct lines of domestication. One via southwest Asia around 4400 B.C. and the second from the African cats who became popular in Egypt around 1500 B.C. Scientists speculate that as agricultural communities grew and human dependency on stored grain became more common, so did a rodent population who were capable of decimating those stockpiles of food. Cats, they speculate, began to skirt the peripheries of these agricultural settlements, feeding on the rodents and proving themselves to be worthy additions to the communities.
It’s a long journey from the middle and far east to the shores of Europe, yet cats seemed to have popped up in different parts of Europe simultaneously during the ancient
era. How did cats make the precarious journey from the cradle of civilization to the heart of the Roman Empire? They sailed of course.
A geographical analysis of these ancient cat remains showed a compelling pattern. Archeological finds consistently were found along classical maritime trading routes. As cats became a welcome addition to ship’s crews, they began to disperse in maritime ports of call and in trading destinations. And, like most sailors, they began to leave their progeny in every port in which they docked.
“Rodents on ships not only eat and spoil the food, they also destroy the ropes, so rodents could be a disaster for sailors, says Thierry Grange, a molecular biologist at the Institute Jacques Monod, “Cats prevent these types of disasters.” Their reputation as valuable mousers had spread and cats quickly became a regular sight on many sea faring vessels.
They first hitched rides on Roman trading vessels and began a quick infiltration throughout the Mediterranean and Baltics, eventually spreading all the way to southern Europe. But it was the Viking era that really gave cats the chance to conquer the western world. The Vikings understood the value of this mainly self-sufficient yet friendly creature and cats quickly became a mainstay on almost every Viking ship. During this period, the population of African wildcats in the Mediterranean and Europe exploded and slowly found their way as far as Northern Europe and, eventually, to the Americas.
For thousands of years, these feline globetrotters followed exploration minded humans and eventually left their footprint on almost every continent on Earth. The evolution from wild cat to house cat had begun.