Contrary to popular belief, the Egyptians were not the first to domesticate cats. That being said, precisely how much further back the tradition extended, or who it was that pioneered this practice are impossible to ascertain. Bearing this in mind, experts can only offer educational guesses derived from archaeological evidence.
In 2004, a crew of archaeologists captained by Jean-Denis Vigne – a head researcher from the University of Paris formerly employed by the National Museum of Natural History in the French capital – stumbled upon a landmark discovery. The team had unearthed a 9,500-year-old human grave from the Neolithic period in Shillourokambos, a bustling village once situated in southern Cyprus. In this grave was a single corpse, an adult male of indeterminable age who was most likely of prestigious social standing, as hinted by the colorful array of offerings found alongside him, which included a canister of ocher pigment, a block of iron oxide, flint tools, and a medley of polished stones and seashells, among other precious trinkets. Resting just 16 inches away from the human corpse, curled up in the fetal position, was the skeleton of a Sardinian wildcat, which was posed in a similar fashion, facing its master. The cat was eight months old at the time of its death, and researchers presume it was killed so that it could accompany its master into the afterlife.
As wildcats were not endemic to any Mediterranean island (with the exception of Sicily), the felines in Shillourokambos were most likely natives of the Middle East that were shipped over to the island from the Levantine coast, most likely traveling with cattle, pigs, deer, goats, and other non-indigenous critters to assist the human settlements in those parts.
Given the archaeologists’ revelations at Cyprus, it can be said with certainty that the practice of domesticating felines, at the very least, dates back to 7500 BCE, and that the prehistoric peoples of the Fertile Crescent were grooming cats for submission long before the Egyptians hopped on the bandwagon 4,000 years ago.
Exactly how prehistoric humans managed to tame the reclusive, headstrong, highly defensive, and carnivorous Sardinian wildcat and why they tackled such a strenuous undertaking in the first place also remain subjects of debate. Whatever the case, the general consensus is that the wildcats made the first move. The felines, scientists theorized, were drawn to the rodents – the Mus musculus domesticus, or Western European house mouse in particular – that stalked Neolithic farmlands and storehouses, nibbling away on stockpiles of barley, einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, chickpeas, lentils, and flax seeds. The Mus musculus (house mouse) was birthed approximately 900,000 years ago in northern India, where it first made contact with the last generations of Homo erectus tribesmen, before spreading to China and other parts of Central Asia, then Eurasia. Eventually they arrived on the Mediterranean shores 14,000 years ago circa 12000 BCE and eventually spread to the rest of Europe. The first known case of cat domestication could have occurred at any point during this vast timeframe.
Indeed, rodents, snakes, cockroaches, and other similar pests primarily sowed the seeds of cat domestication, but wildcats were also attracted to the rotting scraps of meat, bones, and other organic matter in the putrid trash piles that amassed on the fringes of villages and towns. The villagers were unconcerned with and tolerated the growing presence of the wildcats in their neighborhoods, for they were much smaller and far less threatening than lions, leopards, panthers, and other large felines. Furthermore, those who observed the wildcats’ hunting expeditions likely found ways to deliberately lure these felines into their habitations to boost pest control. Like modern-day humans, early tribespeople may have also found the petite statures and delightfully adorable features of these wildcats endearing, and possibly brought home wounded strays and sickly, abandoned kittens voluntarily so as to nurse them back to health.
This begs the question of whether mankind tamed the wildcat or whether the wildcat tamed itself. After all, feral felines approached human settlements first and were not forcibly ensnared and caged, but rather, lingered of their own accord, adapting and learning to coexist with humans organically over time, and evolving through natural selection until the advent of selective wildcat breeding, which, as previously mentioned, begat the modern house cat. The Felis catus is what supporters of the latter theory call a “commensal domesticate” – a phrase describing animals that were not actively reared or subdued by people, but were for some reason or another magnetically attracted to areas populated by humans. As the first wildcats who cohabited with humans were, for the most part, left to look after themselves, their scavenging skills and hunting prowess remained untouched. This is why feral modern-day house cats are still wholly capable of sustaining themselves in the wild.
In the early 2000s, an international team of scientists from the National Center for Scientific Research in France, once again led by Jean-Denis Vigne, uncovered what appeared to be an assortment of domestic felid remains in ancient agricultural villages that once stood in the Henan and Shaanxi provinces of China. Five mandibles from different cat skeletons dating from roughly 3,500 to 2,900 BCE were analyzed, and determined to be more closely related to the Prionailurus bengalensis, AKA the “leopard cat,” as opposed to the Felis silvestris lybica. From this, scientists concluded that the leopard cat entered a commensal relationship with and were partially tamed by Chinese villagers as far back as 5,500 BCE, thousands of years before the arrival of the domestic wildcat in these parts. Leopard cats, now believed to be the earliest “proto-domesticated” feline in China, were likewise drawn to the mice-infested stores of millet that had been squirreled away by local farmers.
Evidently,the domestication of leopard cats did not last long, as there are no traces of the Prionailurus bengalensis left in present-day Chinese house cats; like all other domestic felines, all Chinese house cats are purely descended from the Felis silvestris.