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Cat History and Evolution

 
By Eduarda Piamore, Expert in canine and feline psychology, education and training.. September 5, 2019
Cat History and Evolution

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Few animals have had as complex relationship with humans as cats. It is believed the domestication of cats began around 9,000 years ago, but the actual date is difficult to determine due to the limits of historical and archaeological evidence. We do know they were revered in antiquity as incarnations of divinities and that they suffered incredible persecution due to their association with witchcraft and heresy. It took many years before they were once again adopted as pets in some regions.

Although the history of cats extends beyond their relationship with humans, their recent development has been inextricably linked to us. In this AnimalWised article, we look at cat evolution and history so we can better understand why cats and humans have become so inseparable.

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Cat Evolution - the domestic cat's ancestors

The domestic cat (Felis catus or Felis silvestris domesticus) is a small mammal belonging to the Felidae family. This is because the history of the cat is interconnected with the wild felines which still inhabit parts of our planet. It is currently believed all domestic cat breeds derived from the wild cat (Felis silvestris). More specifically, it is estimated that all felines share a common ancestor from the genus Miacis.

Miacis consists of the oldest known group of primitive carnivores that is currently known. From this group, all known carnivorous animals, including felines, are likely to have developed. The first cat ancestors would have been a similar size to a civet, with an elongated body and tail. They would have lived during the upper Cretaceous period about 60 million years ago.

Millions of years later, members of the Miacis genus began to develop morphological differences, i.e. their physical form began to change. This gave rise to various groups of carnivorous animals. Unfortunately, the fossil history of felines is not as well documented as other species such as canids. We still have a lot to discover about the history and evolution of domestic cats and other felines.

It has been assumed that the first species related to felids would have been Proailurus, a small tree-dwelling carnivorous animal which inhabited Europe about 40 million years ago. During the Oligocene period, the first felids were divided into two large groups: Nimravidae and Felidae. The latter contained Proailurus from which the extinct species closest to modern felines would eventually descend.This species was called Pseudaelurus which would have appeared for the first time around 20 million years ago, disappearing about 8 million years ago.

Subsequently, during the Miocene period which began about 23 million years ago, Pseudaelurus had already diversified significantly with its population beginning to expand to Africa and America. The specific morphological and genetic root of modern felines is likely to have started about 10 million years ago. This was when they separated from Pseudaelurus, having adapted to steppes and savannas were an abundance of food in the form of herbivorous animals could be found. In the same period, felines with long canine teeth would emerge before becoming extinct around 10,000 BCE.

However, small modern felines belonging to the genus Felis, such as wildcats, would take a little longer to inhabit the earth's surface. They first appeared around 5 million years ago on the Asian continent. Expansion across other continents would begin around the same period, although they would not reach Oceania or Madagascar..

In addition, several 2006 analyses of the sex chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA of different modern feline species, including the domestic cat, were carried out. Along with many paleontological studies, results suggest the genetic lineage which gave rise to domestic cats would have separated from other small cats around 3.4 million years ago. This likely occurred among the forests and deserts of the Mediterranean basin.

In the image below we can observe the recreation of a Pseudaelurus in a mural of the Smithsonian Institution museum in Washington, DC (USA).

Cat History and Evolution - Cat Evolution - the domestic cat's ancestors

African wildcat origins

The history and evolution of the domestic cat still generates a lot of debate in the scientific community. It is not possible to speak of a consensus among experts on the exact origins of our adorable companion cats. Even today there is still much debate over whether the domestic cat should be classified and an independent species or continue as a subspecies of the Eurasian wildcat (Felis silvestris).

It is worth nothing there are six subspecies of wildcat currently recognized. They are:

  1. Felis silvestris silvestris: better known as European wildcat, lives in Europe and the Anatolian Peninsula.
  2. Felis silvestris lybica: popularly called the African wildcat and lives in North Africa and in Western Asia put toward the Aral Sea.
  3. Felis silvestris cafra: this is the wildcat of southern Africa which lives in the sub-Saharan region of the African continent.
  4. Felis silvestris ornata: known as the Asian wildcat, their distribution extends through Central and Eastern Asia, Pakistan and northwestern India.
  5. Felis silvestris bieti: popularly known as Chinese wildcat or Chinese desert cat, this feline mostly inhabits northern China.
  6. Felis silvestris catus: this is the domestic cat, an animal which has spread throughout the world. They are the feline with the greatest geographic distribution and morphological diversity.

Shared morphological features and genetic analyses allow us to assume that domestic cats would have been descendants of the African wildcat. In addition, the more sociable nature of African wildcats would have helped to facilitate their coexistence with humans and adapting successfully to human lifestyles. In 2007, a detailed molecular study of 979 domestic cats showed the relation of the domestic cat and the African wildcat, judging it to have separated approximately 130,000 years ago[1].

The same study asserts that cats were domesticated in the Near East, but there is considerable debate over this issue also. Much of the fossil remains seem to indicate that domestication would have begun in Ancient Egypt around 2000 BCE. However, some recent discoveries have begun to propose new challenges to this theory, bringing further controversy to the origin of the domestic cat. For example, in 2004 the remains of a cat which had been buried next to its owner were discovered in Cyprus. This was dated to somewhere around 7,500 and 7,000 BCE.

When and where were cats domesticated?

In mid-2017, extensive research supported by the University of Leuven in Belgium was released. The research provided DNA evidence found in the teeth, skin, nails and hair of various domestic cats and compared it with different archaeological sites from Africa, Asia and Europe[2]. The results showed that oldest fossils records suggest domestic cats date back between 9,000 and 10,000 years.

The hypothesis of this study continues to suggest two other important factors of cat evolution and history. The first is that cat domestication was a “complex, long-term process featuring extensive translocations that allowed admixture of events between geographically separated cat populations at different points in time”. This means the domestication process did not begin in one place, but likely occurred in many places at different times, all contributing to the domestic cat as we know it today.

The second important assertion from the study is that cats likely domesticated themselves. Wildcats looking for food when supplies were scant likely approached human populations and found them amenable to sharing resources. The symbiosis of humans and cats begins here, the cats getting food for survival and humans enjoying the interactions with a friendly form of wildlife.

Part of these positive interactions for humans likely began in a more practical nature. Cats are natural predators of animals humans consider pests such as rodents and insects. In this regard, a cat would help to protect resources as well as reduce the likelihood of disease and parasitical infestation. In turn, humans would also be able to provide the cat with other benefits such as shelter and warmth. If this study is correct, then the cat is likely the only animal species to have chosen to undergo the process of domestication under their own volition.

However, these studies are also limited. They cannot assert whether domesticated cats arrived in Egypt thanks to the migratory habits of peoples from the Middle East. Or whether African wildcats domesticated themselves in Ancient Egypt separately. They do suggest the latter is more likely.

In the image below, we can see an inscription on the sarcophagus of the Crown Prince Thutmose in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Valenciennes.

Cat History and Evolution - When and where were cats domesticated?

History of cats - Ancient Egypt

Now that we know more about the origin and genetic history of the domestic cat, we can talk a little more about its history and evolution. We will especially be looking at the history of human feline interaction. The bonds we share with domestic cats today could have started 10,000 years ago, but there have been many developments along the way. We know a lot about a cat's nature from this lengthy time together, but new information is coming to light all the time. As it is impossible to distill the entire history of the cat into just a few paragraphs, we will limit ourselves to some key points. These mainly concern the cat in the West, from Ancient Egypt to the contemporary era through the Middle and Modern Ages.

While the above information suggests the first domestic cat did not necessarily emerge in Egypt, the Egyptian civilization is likely the first to adopt and care for them as pets. This is because they were not only appreciated for their hunting abilities, but also for their noble and independent nature. They also revealed great sensitivity and affection toward their new companions. In addition to these special bonds, Egyptian civilization highlighted a great respect for animals and appeared to incorporate them harmoniously in their lifestyle.

The famous veneration of cats which partly characterizes Ancient Egyptian civilization is associated with the cult of the goddess Bastet. The meaning of her name is difficult to determine, but may mean “She of the ointment jar”. Regardless of the exact meaning, she was a symbol of protection, fertility and beauty. As the cat was incorporated into the culture of Ancient Egypt and its qualities were being recognized, the depictions of Bastet were increasingly associated with cats. She was often either shown as a black cat or as a woman with a cat's head.

The cult of Bastet was particularly associated with the ancient city of Bubastis in which many mummified cats have been discovered. This is probably because cats in this town were considered to be incarnations of this goddess. This is why they would have earned the honor of the mummification ritual which was otherwise only available to nobles and pharaohs.

It is said that the link between the Egyptians and cats was so intense that the Persians exploited it as a weakness to conquer the Pelusium region. According to Macedonian author Polyaenus, the Persian King Cambyses II ordered his men to hold cats while approaching the enemy. The Egyptians were so frightened of hurting the sacred animal that they did not fire arrows and the Persians were able to advance unharmed. The lack of counterattack meant the Persians were able to invade lower Egypt.

Cat History and Evolution - History of cats - Ancient Egypt

History of cats - coming to Europe

There is also a legend which claims the Greeks had to steal a pair of cats to introduce them to their country. This is because the Egyptians refused to market them commercially since they were considered divine. This is how it is believed by some that the cats were introduced to the European continent, although this hypothesis lacks solid historical evidence.

Far from following Ancient Egyptian traditions, the Greeks mainly used cats for rodent control and as a commodity to barter with the Romans, French and Celts. Thanks to the intense trade between these civilizations, cats were able to expand their distribution throughout the Mediterranean. However, this may have also caused a temporary rupture is the emotional bond between human and cat, since the Greeks were not particularly fond of them as a companion animal. The breeding of dogs was generally favored as they were used for protection and companionship.

However, one of the saddest moments in the history of human/feline relationships occurred during the Middle Ages in Europe. This time roughly extends from the 5th to the 15th centuries CE. Although farmers and monks in monasteries would appreciate cats for their skill at hunting vermin, they were eventually associated with the practice of witchcraft and heretic movements. It was likely their appearance, nocturnal habits and even the myth about having multiple lives likely caused the association. As early as the beginning of the inquisition, there has been a massive persecution of cats, mainly black cats. They were often slaughtered at folk festivals as part of an attempt to fight heresy.

History of cats - the modern domestic cat

With the onset of the Renaissance, this practice began to lose popularity and cats started to rejoin society, at least as a form of pes control. However, it was only after the success of the French Revolution when sacrificing cats on bonfires was expressly prohibited, as ideas around animal cruelty began to be fostered. With plague outbreaks during the Middle Ages, cats were becoming popular in cities. Their presence was once again valued in homes, ships, shops and even offices. It is then that cats were also thought to be able to absorb negative energies, although black cats were still often feared.

The affectionate bond between human and cat in Europe was reborn during the Romantic movement which flourished in the 19th century. Art plays a key role in changing society's perspective on these little felines. Certain superstitions and cultural remnants of ancient times began to dissipate. Consequently, cats were finally adopted regularly as companion animals. Alongside, the interest in studying feline ethology began in earnest.

By the early 20th century, selective breeding of cats was beginning to create new breeds. This involved taking into account the characteristics and traits which guardians most desired, something which changed significantly according to region. To give a general idea, only 8 separate breeds were registered by 1900. At the beginning of the 21st century some cat associations officially recognize 71 individual breeds. There are even more which are waiting to receive official recognition.

This diversity of domestic cat breeds and desire to spend much time an energy devoted to them is a sign of the great changes which have occurred in cat history. While this history will develop, it looks like the strong bond between human and feline is not going to be broken any time soon.

If you want to read similar articles to Cat History and Evolution, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

References

1. Driscoll, C., et al. (2007)

2. Ottoni, C., et al. (2017)

Bibliography

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