Egyptian hunting cat, ancestor of domestic fats

Domesticated cats (“Felis cattus”) come in three varieties: 1) house cats, 2) semi-feral types that use human as central base and come and go as they please, and 3) truly feral varieties.

Domesticated cats evolved from wild cats. Members of the domestic cat lineage include the Pallas's cat (Asia), Chinese desert cat (Asia), sand cat (Asia, Africa), Jungle cat (Asia, Africa), black-footed cat (Africa), and wild cat (Europe, Africa, Asia).

Domesticated cats first appeared around 10,000 years ago, later than dogs, sheep, and some other domesticated animals. Most likely the descendants of the African wild cats, they first appeared in the Middle East and northeast Africa when mankind switch from nomadism to a settled agricultural life in which cats were useful in exterminating rats and other grain-eating rodents. African wild cats are small pale yellow creatures with black feet.

"Cats are certainly more mysterious and complex than we would ever think," Leslie A. Lyons, who studies cat genetics at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis, told the Washington Post. "However, we're starting to get their story."[Source: Rob Stein, Washington Post, March 17, 2008]

Domestication of Cats

Rob Stein wrote in Washington Post, “In one of the most comprehensive explorations of cats' origins to date, Lyons and her colleagues spent about five years collecting feline DNA, poking behind the whiskers of more than 1,100 Persians, Siamese, street cats and household tabbies around the world to swab inside their mouths. The genetic samples came from 22 breeds of fancy cats, mostly in the United States, along with an assortment of feral and pet cats in Korea, China, Kenya, Israel, Turkey, Vietnam, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Egypt, Italy, Finland, Germany, the United States and Brazil. [Source: Rob Stein, Washington Post, March 17, 2008]

suborder feliformia

“By analyzing 39 genetic signposts in the samples, the researchers were able to investigate a variety of questions, including which breeds are most closely related and where they most likely originated. The first thing the group did was confirm a report published in June 2008 in the journal Science that the domestication of cats about 10,000 years ago appeared to have occurred in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, which stretches from Turkey to northern Africa and to modern-day Iraq and Iran. "Our data support the Fertile Crescent, specifically Turkey, as one of the origin sites for cats," said Lyons, who published her findings in the January issue of the journal Genomics. "Turkey was part of the Fertile Crescent and hence was one of the earliest areas for agricultural development."

“Cats probably started living close to humans when people evolved from nomadic herding to raising livestock and crops and started storing food, which attracted mice and other rodents. Cats found good hunting there, and humans surely appreciated the sly little predators' help protecting their stocks. "There was a mutual benefit," Lyons said. "There was a food source of mice and rats all around the grain. So it was beneficial for both cats and humans as the cats came closer to human populations and kind of domesticated themselves." From there, domesticated cats started to radiate out to different parts of the world, often following humans on their migrations. Today cats can be divided genetically into four broad groups: those from Europe, the Mediterranean, East Africa and Asia.

Early Evidence of Cat Domestication

Katja Pettinen wrote in Woman’s World: A more ancient set of clues comes from the burial of a man who lived on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, close to the coast of Turkey, some 9,000 years ago. What is unique about this grave is that the man was buried with an 8-month-old cat, both of their bodies positioned to face the west. This was a carefully crafted burial meant to shepherd the man into the afterlife. [Source: Katja Pettinen, Woman’s World,, April 18, 2023]

In fact, the human-cat relationship reaches as far back as 10,000 years, before any civilizations or cities, but with one new feature in human existence: agriculture. Once humans shifted from foraging for foods to producing foods, they faced the challenge of storage. This new accumulation of food surplus brought many uninvited guests, including cats. Cats, who are carnivores, did not care to eat these grains. Rather, they caught the mice, rats, and even birds who showed up to enjoy the brand-new buffet of grains.

It didn’t take long for cats to become valued, even beloved, entering the human fold. Besides the ancient burials of the day, cats are also carved and shaped into stone and clay figures throughout the Near East. All around, both the material remains and the representational figures tell us a very concrete story about how special the human-cat relationship has been for thousands of years.

How the Chinese Domesticated Cats 5,300 Years Ago

Cat bones, dated to 5,300 years ago, from a Chinese village ago give clues to how wild felines became house pets. Malcolm Ritter of Associated Press wrote: “It was the cat's appetite that started it down the path to domestication, scientists believe. The grain stored by ancient farmers was a magnet for rodents. And that drew wild cats into villages to hunt the little critters. Over time, wild cats adapted to village life and became tamer around their human hosts. [Source: Malcolm Ritter, Associated Press December 16, 2013 +++]

“That's the leading theory, anyway, for how wild cats long ago were transformed and became ancestors of today's house cats. That happened in the Middle East, rather than China. But bones from the Chinese village back up the idea that felines took on the pest-control job in ancient times, says researcher Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St. Louis. Marshall is an author of a report on the fossil research, published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, focused on an agricultural village in northern China, comes from a poorly understood time in the history of cats. The first evidence of domesticated cats comes much later, in Egyptian artwork from about 4,000 years ago. +++

“So what went on in that village? Researchers found signs that rodents were threatening the village grain supply. Storage vessels were designed to keep them out, and rodents had burrowed into a grain-storage pit. In the ancient feline bones, chemical signatures indicated that the cats had eaten animals that in turn had fed on millet, a grain crop known to be harvested by the villagers. So apparently, the cats were indeed going after the rodents.It's not yet clear whether the cats were from a local wild population, or were already domesticated and had been brought in from elsewhere, Marshall said. Either way, it shows that ancient cats filled the niche at the heart of the hypothesis about how domestication began, she said. Greger Larson of Durham University in England called the new work "an important step forward." Few studies have focused on how cats became domesticated, in contrast to dogs, pigs and sheep, he said.” +++

Cats in Ancient Egypt

cat mummies
Domestic cats were present in ancient Egypt at least as early as 2000 B.C. So strong was the Egyptian love of cats that laws were established protect them from injury and death. Cats were mummified, buried in bronze coffins, and honored with elaborate funerals and a period of mourning. Cats are believed to have been domesticated by the Egyptians by around 3000 B.C. to get rid of grain-eating rodents.

The Egyptians produced lovely sculptures of cats. They were associated with the goddess Bastet. The belief that cats have nine lived is believed to have originated in Egypt based on the fact that cats can survive long falls. There were temples for Bastet, where mummified cats were left as offerings and kittens were bred by the thousands to meet the demand or offerings.

Herodotus wrote that cats were considered so important that exporting them was illegal and killing one was a crime punishable by death. Owners of cats that died naturally were required to shave off their eyebrows.

Egypt's most well known cat is the sphinx. Cats were "mummified in the millions" and buried as offerings. Priests carefully watched over temples cats. Their movements were sources of omens. In the 19th century so many mummified cats were exhumed that they were shipped to Britain as ballast, then ground into fertilizer." Lions were said to accompany the pharaohs in battle and were give names like “Slayer of his Foes.” Killing a lion was regarded as an act of extraordinary bravery. Inscriptions describe the breeding and burial of lions. Thus far only one lion mummy has been found.

Cats were "mummified in the millions" in ancient Egypt and buried as offerings. In 1888, a farmer digging in the sand near the village of Istabl Antar found a huge mass grave of cat mummies. English Illustrated magazine reported: “Not one or two here and there but dozens, hundreds of thousands, a layer of them, a stratum thicker than most coal seams, ten to twenty cats deep.” Some were beautifully warped with linen and had gilded faces. The best ones were sold to tourists by village children. The rest were sold as fertilizer. More than 180,000 were hauled away on one ship to Liverpool and used to enrich the soils of England.

Some of the better-prepared kitten mummies found at Istabl Antar were wrapped in linen in a spiral patterns and given a painted mask. The mummies were then placed in a wooden coffin, shaped like an adult cat in a sphinx position that stood about 36 centimeters tall, dwarfing the mummy inside.

Studying Cat Domestication

Naomi Sykes, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter, is studying why humans feed animals and how this have affected domestication along with Angela Cassidy, also at the University of Exeter, who has written about the internecine wars over the culling of badgers in Britain; Gary Marvin, an anthropologist at the University of Roehampton, who holds one of the world’s few professorships in human-animal studies; Stuart Black, a geochemist at the University of Reading; and Andrew Kitchener, principal curator of vertebrates at National Museums Scotland.

“The group is limiting its research geographically to Britain, for practical and logistical reasons. Its attention is mainly focused on the roles played by birds and cats in human life, as pets, pests, wild animals and zoo animals. In each case, they are asking the same broad questions about the origin of and reason behind various feeding methods, and what needs to change, if anything.

“For instance, Sykes will be looking at the archaeological records of cats from Roman settlements. Black will be studying the isotopes in modern and ancient cat bones to determine what cats were eating. Did monks’ cats in fact eat a lot of fish? He has already proved his technique on modern cats. “We can tell a fishy cat from a meaty cat,” he said. “In fact we can tell an Iams cat from a Whiskers cat,” although he concedes that knowledge may not be so useful in studying felines from the Middle Ages.

Cats and Christianity

Romans kept dogs and cats and did so after the were Christianized and perhaps their religion played a role in how were domesticated. James Gorman wrote in the New York Times: Remains of the cats are found in settlements along with remains of wildcats that seemed to be living with or near humans as well, not as pets, but not quite wild either. “That got me thinking about cat diet, which then made me think, wait a minute, why do we feed domestic cats fish?” asks Sykes, [Source: James Gorman, New York Times, May 12, 2021]

“Could Christianity have something to do with it? “I think that monks start keeping cats for the first time, at least in Britain, as domestic pets,” she explained. “And they keep them because they want to have cats to eat the mice that eat the documents that they’re writing. And of course, monks are eating fish because they’re required to fast all the time.” Perhaps, she said, the monks fed the cats fish. The practice spread. And now an entire separate fishery catches fish for cat food. That worries Sykes because of its environmental impact. She says shoppers don’t put the same pressure for sustainability on the cat food fleets that they do on fisheries providing food for people.

Kitchener has look at old cat skeletons from Roman times and saw that wildcats, now restricted to a small population in Scotland, were living in human settlements. Cassidy may look at political policies on feeding stray cats. Marvin said he would be working with postdoctoral researchers employed through the grant to look at cultural artifacts and historical literature to gauge how human attitudes toward cats have changed. He is also working with another postdoctoral researcher in Italy who will pursue anthropological studies among women who feed the feral cats of the coliseum in Rome. This interdisciplinary approach is very important, Marvin said. “To be in a room where a geneticist can be talking to an anthropologist and actually helping to answer questions, or ask more interesting questions — I think it’s quite a feat.”

Cats — Domestic But Not Domesticated

Katja Pettinen wrote in Woman’s World: House cats are fed and cared for, but besides occasional mouse catching, they do not contribute to household tasks, particularly in urban settings. Surely, we can’t group cats with domesticated animals, a category that includes the many species that humans consume as food: cows, chickens, sheep, reindeer, and the rest. Most animals that have been domesticated are there to fulfill some kind of functional relationship for humans: to provide us with calories, hides, or wool, or as a means of transportation. That’s not to say that humans don’t develop close feelings for some of these species, such as horses. In each category, though, these species are there to perform tasks. But cats just don’t pull sleds all that well! [Source: Katja Pettinen, Woman’s World,, April 18, 2023]

For biologists, who commonly wrestle with issues of classification, the term “domesticated” means that there is a clear physical difference between a species in the wild and its domesticated counterpart. Cats and humans are close. Either we acquire them as kittens and build a relationship from the start, or we may come across a feral cat in an alley and with some time, patience, and good treats, this individual can be tamed. And this is where all species domestication got its start: taming an individual, and then bringing consistent control over the three key elements in that creature’s life: food, shelter, and sex.

When it comes to food, cats enjoy the Friskies and other treats we provide them with. But any wild animal will consume food if we provide it. The real question with food is: Can the animals still provide for themselves? And with cats, somewhat unfortunately, we know all too well that they can hunt to kill. Outdoor cats in the US alone kill hundreds of millions of birds every year, even contributing to avian species extinction. Cats also kill mice and other rodents, but as humans, we tend to either welcome this predation or not concern ourselves too much with it.

Because cats maintain their capacity for predation, because they go out and hunt birds and rodents with abandon, they do not fall into “domestication syndrome.” The shelter part as well is also taken care of by the small size of cats: It’s easy for them to find places to tuck into, even in cities with all those sheds, alleyways, and dumpsters. Cats certainly seem to enjoy the comfort of our homes, but if need be they can also shelter themselves.

This brings us to that third factor, sex. One of the most basic concepts in biological conversations about species is “gene flow” — the movement of genetic materials from one population to another. And there really is only one main way for genes to “flow”: through acts of reproduction.

When kitties roam the streets, for this or that reason, even just for that classic cat curiosity, they will meet other cats. And if neither is neutered, and the female is in heat, sex likely follows. Because most cats enter this world from such non-human mediated processes, there is a great deal of gene flow happening: Different populations of cats are genetically continuously connected. Even if your individual kitty is a happy indoor couch potato, they are still part of the genetic population of roamers and hunters.

Broader analyses show that the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) is very close genetically, in fact nearly identical, with the wild cat (Felis silvestris). In short, their genes have traveled across the generations. It is this gene flow that maintains biological preparedness in cats to keep moving, hunting, and roaming. They also have hidden deadly weapons, the claws, and a truly exceptional hearing range, being able to detect ultrasonic sounds, just as bats can.

The long and short of it is that modern cats are domestic, often living with us, but they are not actually domesticated. In contrast to dogs, which humans have been biologically sculpting much more closely and for much longer, cats do not enter the world prepared to communicate with humans as a species. But at times, individual cats do choose to hear us. That’s the cat’s life in summary: tamable, yes, domesticated, not so much.

House Cat Characteristics and Coat Patterns

House cats have an average life span of 14 to 17 years (one in England lived to be 34). The have acute senses of hearing and vision; display excellent balance and control of their bodies; and keep themselves exceptionally clean. Female house cats mature at the age of 6 or 7 months and males between 10 and 11 months.

On how genes determine a cat’s coat pattern, AP reported: “Scientists say they've found the gene that sets the common tabby pattern---stripes or blotches. It's one of several genes that collaborate to create the distinctive design of a cat's coat, and it's the first of the pattern genes to be identified. Cats with narrow stripes, the so-called "mackerel" pattern, have a working copy of the gene. But if a mutation turns the gene off, the cat ends up with the blotchy "classic" pattern, researchers in the journal Science. [Source: Malcolm Ritter, Associated Press, September 20, 2012]

It's called "classic" because "cat lovers really like the blotched pattern," said one of the authors, Greg Barsh. He works at both Stanford University and the HudsonAlpha Institute of Biotechnology in Huntsville, Ala. The research team, which included scientists from the National Cancer Institute, examined DNA from wild cats in California to identify the gene. They also found that a mutation in the same gene produces the blotches and stripes of the rare "king" cheetah, rather than the spots most cheetahs have.

Leslie Lyons, a cat geneticist who studies coat color traits at the University of California, Davis, but didn't participate in the new work, agreed that the research has identified the tabby's stripes-versus-blotches gene. She noted that mysteries remain, like just what genetic machinery gives a tabby spots.

Domestic Cat Behavior

House cats have a range up to one kilometer from their homes. They are difficult to train but some have been taught to jump through hoops, dance on their hind legs and do other tricks. And, they are not necessarily stoic loners they are made out to be. One cat was so upset by its owners death it reportedly visited her grave every day.

Females go into a five-day heat up to five times a year, during which time they twist around and let out unearthly calls, the source some say of links between cats and the Devil. Males respond to the calls and fight with one another and chase the females around. When a female accepts male, copulation is short and violent with the male often biting into the female’s neck. They often mate several times and fight afterwards. The gestation period is 63 days and most females give birth to around four kittens.

Commenting on how domestic cats have moved beyond the group hunting tactics used by lions, David Attenborough wrote: “The ancestor of the domestic cat is the European wild cat that lives in the Middle East and Africa. Like most other cats, they are solitary creatures. But domesticated cats that have run wild, either in cities such as Rome or in farmyards, have found food on a scale their wild ancestors never had. In farmyards, a cat needs no help in pouncing on a mouse. In a city center it needs no assistance in making a meal from the discarded remains of a chicken dinner.

“In such places there is enough food to support great numbers of these ferocious feral hunters. But they do not all compete with one another indiscriminately. They form teams. Females assist their sisters, daughters and even granddaughters. They live in close proximity with one another and band together to keep away any unrelated cats that seek to take up residence in their territory. They produce their kittens in a communal den and nursing mothers even allow their nephews and nieces to suckle. And tom cats living in smaller numbers alongside these female groups will kill the kittens fathered by their rivals. The parallel with lion prides is certainly a close one.”

Breeds of Domesticated Cats

There are 73 breeds of cat recognized by the IPCBA (International Progressive Cat Breeders Alliance), , including dainty Abyssinians and snow white Persians, Havana brown, Burmese, Singapura, Siberians, Norwegian forest cats, Maine coons and Japanese bobtails.. The short hairs include Siamese, Abyssinian, Burmese, Russian blue, Havana brown, Rex, Manx, Korat and Charteux. The long hairs include Persians and Himalayans. Breeds look very different because of variations in a single gene, which is not enough to distinguish them genetically.

Rob Stein wrote in Washington Post, “Lyons and her colleagues also made surprising discoveries about individual breeds. "We wanted to see whether breeds actually came from what was thought to be their geographical origins," Lyons said. The Japanese bobtail, for example, does not seem genetically similar to cats from Japan, indicating the breed may have originated elsewhere. "Either it didn't originate in Japan or there's been so much Western influence that they have lost their initial genetic signal," Lyons said. [Source: Rob Stein, Washington Post, March 17, 2008]

“Despite its name, the Persian, the oldest recognized breed, looks as though it actually arose in Western Europe and not Persia, which today is Iran. "If it came from Iran, you would think it would look like cats from Turkey and Israel," she said. Instead, the Persian "looked more like a Western European cat." When the researchers examined the genes of what are thought to be distinct breeds, they were unable to find significant differences among many of them. "An example would be Persian and exotic shorthairs. When you look at those two breeds, you can't distinguish them from one another" by their genes, she said. The same was true for the Burmese and the Singapura, as well as the Siamese and the Havana brown. While Havana browns are considered a separate breed in the United States, European cat breed associations consider them a color variation of Siamese.

“The researchers also found interesting relationships that track human history. Italian and Tunisian cats, for example, are a mix of Western European and Mediterranean cats, probably reflecting the close historical ties between Tunisia and western Europe. Cats from Sri Lanka and Singapore are a genetic melange of cats from Southeast Asia, Europe and elsewhere, which could be a "relic of British colonialism," the researchers wrote. The same goes for the Abyssinian.

“The finding that cat lovers should be concerned about is that some breeds have become so inbred that the amount of genetic variation among them is getting dangerously low. That tends to lead to higher levels of illness, Lyons said. "That could have consequences for the cats' health. The more genetic variation, generally the healthier the population will be. So some cat breeders need to be careful that there's not too much inbreeding going on," she said.The Burmese and Singapura breeds had the least diversity, she said, while Siberians had the greatest, along with Norwegian forest cats, Maine coons and Japanese bobtails. About half the breeds examined had genetic variation comparable to randomly bred cats, which is good, but the other half had less. "You don't want to say they are in trouble, but it's something we should note," Lyons said.

“Despite the shrinking genetic diversity, purebred cats remain far more genetically diverse than purebred dogs, noted Marilyn Menotti-Raymond, who studies cat genetics at the National Cancer Institute. That's because people have been breeding cats for about 200 years at most, and there is more interbreeding than among purebred dogs, she said. "Everyone is aware of the problems that can occur from the small gene pool in some dog breeds," said Menotti-Raymond, who, in the same issue of the journal Genomics, reported similar findings in a different sample of 611 cats representing 38 breeds. "I was actually surprised at the level of genetic diversity in cats, and that's good."

Domesticated Cats as Pests

Cats are one of the most damaging alien killers, wrecking havoc among local species. A study in Britain in 1997, found that 1,000 cats killed more than 14,000 mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, including some endangered species, during a single spring and summer. Based on this study, it is estimated that Britain's 9 million pet cats kill 250 million creatures year.

House cats were introduced before 1800 to Australia. They have decimated wildlife in western Australia and contributed the extinction of ten native mammals. Australia's three to four million feral cats are responsible for killing as many as four million native creatures.

Cats are also blamed with transmitting diseases to wildlife populations.

Study: Cats Are Natural Born Killers

In January 2013, Reuters reported: “Think of cats as cute purring bundles of fur? Think again. A new study says free-roaming kitties are serious killers. Such cats are a leading cause of deaths of birds and small mammals in the United States, with pet and ownerless cats blamed for killing up to 3.7 billion birds and as many as 20.7 billion other animals each year, government scientists said in a study released. Ownerless cats, including barn cats, strays and feral colonies, are behind the vast majority of bird and mammal deaths, according to the study, “The impact of free-ranging cats on wildlife in the United States,” published in the online journal Nature Communications. [Source: Reuters, January 31, 2013]

“The study is the first to compile and systematically analyze rates of cat predation. It suggests cats cause “substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought,” and are likely the single greatest source of mortality linked to human settlement for US birds and mammals. The findings by researchers with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the US Fish and Wildlife Service show the bulk of birds killed by cats in the United States — excluding Alaska and Hawaii — were native species such as robins, finches and chickadees.

“Cats largely prey on non-native mice and rats in densely populated urban areas where native wildlife is scarce, the research shows. By contrast, cats in suburban and rural areas kill mostly native mice, shrews, voles, squirrels and rabbits, according to the study authored by Peter Marra and Scott Loss of the Smithsonian and Tom Will of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Migratory Birds.

“Domestic cats, introduced globally by humans, are considered among the 100 worst non-native invasive species in the world yet control of the creatures has not been widely addressed by local, state and federal governments, the study shows.Despite mounting evidence that free-roaming cats are exacting a severe toll on wildlife and contributing or even causing the extinction of some birds, mammals and reptiles, management of cats is strongly shaped by public opinion, or emotion, rather than science, the authors suggest.“A major reason for the current nonscientific approach to management of free-ranging cats is that the total mortality from cat predation is often argued to be negligible compared with other (human-caused) threats such as collisions with manmade structures and habitat destruction,” researchers concluded.

“Birders hailed the study even as lovers of the nation’s estimated 120 million cats assailed it. The American Bird Conservancy said the new findings should be a wake-up call for cat owners and communities. “We all love cats, they’re cute, they’re furry, but we can no longer continue to allow these predators to be turned loose on an unsuspecting and defenseless environment,” said conservancy spokesman Robert Johns.Carol Barbee, past president of the American Cat Fanciers Association, expressed concerns about any study that raises the spectre of “killer kitty.” “Outside cats perform their duty: they catch mice and rats and things that are their job to catch,” she said. “And, yes, they’re going to catch the occasional bird. But I don’t personally believe they’re responsible for mass death and destruction.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2024

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