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From threat to pet: The early domestication of the cat.

Domesticated animals are all around us - from the sheep at your local farm, to the hamster you kept as a child. We cannot escape how ingrained pets have become in contemporary human society. But what is domestication and how did our feline companions come to be?

Domestication is a process by which animals are purposely engineered to fulfill a specific role. Over thousands of years of selective breeding, species are adapted to benefit human interests: dogs for protection; goats for milk; yaks as beasts of burden; sheep for wool etc. Here is the clincher: domestication alters the genes of the subject, causing speciation, and behavioural changes which make humans and domesticated animals essentially dependent on one another.

The cats route to our hearts was an unusual one considering that their ancestor species – the African wildcat – was not an atypical candidate for domestication. In previous domestication events, gregarious, omnivorous, “hierarchy reliant” species were specifically targeted, however wildcats are exclusively solitary, obligatory carnivores. So how come they came to be one of the worlds most beloved pets?

In Africa, their domestication seems closely allied with societal development and the cultural evolution of Ancient Egyptians. Prior to the development of agriculture, Egyptian natives were nomadic hunter gatherers. As with most prehistoric societies, archaeological information is scarce and so this period is poorly documented. However we can assume that, by roaming the length of the river Nile to hunt both fish and waterfowl, humans were in direct competition with wild cats for food.

The dynamic between humans and wild cats began to shift as the neolithic era saw nomadic tribes aggregate into established settlements, and become reliant on cultivation. Granaries built to house harvested crops enticed rodents which attracted wild cats into human settlements. These pioneering felines provided a natural method of pest control which, as it was advantageous to humans, was actively encouraged. This period of commensality eventually lead to small populations of wild cats becoming habituated to humans, as they continued to exploit the abundance of prey around villages. In turn, humans appear to have inflated their appreciation of these cats into something greater; remains of these habituated individuals have been found in pre-dynastic burials at al-Badari and Mostegadda.

Intrigued and mystified as to how animals were so in tune with their natural surroundings, Egyptians began to adopt the belief that animals had some form of higher knowledge over humans. The complex and fluid role animals played in Egyptian religion – and subsequently their society – is exemplified by the cat. Between 3500 and 2000 B.C., Egyptian society was developing a rich cultural heritage, and the link between particular animals and the cult of a god strengthened immensely. Previously associated with the lion, the goddess Bastet was becoming increasingly prominent as a deity linked to wild cats and their habituated counterparts. It is through this association that humans began to play a more active role in the domestication of the wild cat.

There are many documented instances of wild animals being kept within temples as living incarnations of their patron god. The cultural centre of Sobek at Shedet even raised live crocodiles! Many historians argue that, whilst there is no empirical evidence, it is likely Egyptians took kittens from habituated mothers and raised them within the temples. Despite a lack of archaeological evidence, tomb paintings of the time depict members of the elite classes with cats by their side inferring a close relationship – akin to that of pet and owner – between human and feline.

By 1000 B.C. the now house-cat had become almost exclusively allied with the goddess Bastet. In return, the keeping of a pet cat increased in popularity among all classes of people. Mummified cats were presented at temples in their thousands, creating vast “cat cemetaries” at Bubastis, Thebes and Saqqara. Not only this, but it’s association with a major deity provided protection against the persecution it would eventually face in Europe thousands of years later. The cat was no longer a permanent fixture just among grainstores, but now within the home too.

Domestication is an incredible force. Both humans and cats began this tale in

competition however, within around 4000 years, humans experienced an extraordinary cultural transition which saw them invite these animals into their homes as companions. For me, the initial habituation of those first few intrepid cats – which predisposed the species to it’s later domestication – is what makes the cat such a special pet. Unlike other domesticated animals, we did not choose the cat as an ally in an unpredictable and frightening pre-dynastic world. We fell together, entirely by accident, in the midst of birthing civilization and later decided that cats were quite fantastic and we wanted them to stick around. Especially poignant for me is the fact we didn’t really feel the need to breed new species to suit our needs, we loved them as they came. In many ways, I suppose, the domestication of the cat was like a terribly predictable love story. Cats, of course, have embraced this with open arms. Constant attention from humans is well worth tolerating for a ready supply of food and a warm bed!

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