Relationship Between Man and Cat May Be Older Than We Think

Remains suggest cats may have been domesticated in Egypt 5,700 years ago.
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Remains suggest cats may have been domesticated in Egypt 5,700 years ago.
(Photo: Renata Apanaviciene/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Renata Apanaviciene/Shutterstock)

Humans and cats have been enjoying, or at least tolerating, one another’s company for a very long time. But when, exactly, did we start hanging around together?

Newly published research suggests it was way back in the 4th millennium B.C.E.

“It is clear that there was a close relationship with humans that predate the oldest accepted evidence for domestic cat in Egypt by almost two millennia,” writes a research team led by Wim Van Neer of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Its paper is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

A group burial from around 3700 B.C.E. included a young adult jungle cat featuring a healed bone fracture. This indicates "the animal had been tended to for several weeks prior to its sacrifice."

As the researchers note, conventional wisdom has long held that cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt somewhere around 1950 B.C.E. A few years ago, however, a discovery was made while excavating an ancient cemetery at Hierakonpolis, a sizable city that predates the pyramids.

A group burial from around 3700 B.C.E. included a young adult jungle cat featuring a healed bone fracture. This indicates “the animal had been tended to for several weeks prior to its sacrifice,” which means it was a domestic cat—at least for the final stage of its life.

The new paper describes an even more intriguing finding from the same elite cemetery: “A small pit containing six cats,” animals apparently slaughtered as part of a religious sacrifice.

While they caution that their conclusions are not definitive, the researchers make a strong case that these felines were likely tamed or domesticated. A variety of measurements point in that direction, as do the circumstances of their burial.

“The four young animals of 4 to 5 months of age were from two different litters,” they note, “and the female of almost a year of age was too young to be their mother. The adult male was over a year or age, but it cannot be verified if it could be related to the kittens.

“If all these animals are supposed to be taken from the wild, four different captures must be accepted. It seems unlikely that sufficient opportunities for successful capture would have occurred in a short period of time prior to the sacrifice. For that reason, it seems that at least some of the cats may have been kept in captivity prior to the burial.”

The researchers concede that it’s possible the animals might have been “free-ranging cats living near the settlements.” But in any case, they write, “it is clear there was a close interaction” between the cats and humans more than five millennia ago.

Confirmation will have to await the unearthing of the first litter box.

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