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The first pet cats

Do you think you own your cat? Maybe you'd like to think again. In the USA there are almost as many feral cats living wild as there are curled up on the rug in human households. Cats that don't like their household can - and do - wander off and either find another household or try to fend for themselves. The fact is that cats live with humans because they choose to do so, and the relationship has been good for both species. The unique partnership between humans and cats can be traced back to when the two first got together thousands of years ago.

Humans attract rats. And mice. This is because even stone-age humans threw away things that rodents can eat, and with the invention of agriculture humans started to store grain, which rodents love. Rodents attract cats. For cats, nothing beats a freshly-killed mouse as anyone knows who has watched a cat bring a dead rodent next to her plate of expertly-prepared cat food, and crunch through that instead. So cats started to hang around human settlements, though they were originally only in it for the mice. Humans tolerated cats because they killed rodents, and cats tolerated humans because they attracted rodents. It was a symbiotic partnership. Cave paintings that depict cats show that the relationship was established as far back as the stone age.

But when did this business deal develop emotional overtones? When did toleration turn to liking, or even love? You probably know that the domestic cat on your porch was originally an Egyptian. Geneticists have traced the origins of every type of domestic cat back to southern Egypt. It was here that cats were probably first domesticated, and a sub-species with a particular affinity for humans set out on its mission to conquer the world. We know that cats were revered, and even worshipped in Egypt four thousand years ago. But how were they doing in the rest of the world before then? Recently a clue has surfaced in Cyprus with evidence for the earliest pet cat yet discovered.

One of the interesting things about Cyprus is that most of the island's animal population was imported. What this means is that cats did not evolve in Cyprus, but in pre-historic times some humans made the deliberate decision to have cats accompany them on the 70km sea voyage required to get there. So this strongly suggests that the first cats in Cyprus were domestic cats. This is significant. While the remains of cats have been found around prehistoric settlements before, no-one has been definitively able to say whether these were wild cats hanging around with humans in the hope of easy food or domestic cats in the modern sense. (Possibly the cats and humans at the time were not sure about this either.)

However, a recent discovery has clarified things a bit. Archaeologists were excavating the neolithic village of Shillourokambos in Cyprus when they came across a grave shared by a cat and a human. The pair were buried at the same time and less than two feet apart, which suggests that there was a bond between the human and the cat and those doing the burial wished that bond to be continued after death. In other words, for the human in that grave, the cat with him was more than a self-propelled mousetrap. It was a creature he cared about enough to be buried with. The cat was relatively young and apparently healthy when it died, which shows that for cats interaction with humans has always had a downside. This burial took place well before the domestic cat became a major feature of Egyptian life. Therefore, despite the grim ending for this particular cat, we are able to push back the time when the species and humans had more than a business relationship. In fact we can push it back to at least 7,000 years ago.

So next time you open a tin of cat food for your pet, remember that you are celebrating a relationship that was almost four thousand years old before they started to build the pyramids.

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