It’s so hard to imagine that the furry friends that have become a part of so many families were once wild animals. If they are no longer wild animals, does it mean that they are now fully domesticated? Regardless of the answer to this question, this is a process that has taken several thousands of years, albeit with its fair share of challenges. So, how long have cats been domesticated? Several theories have dated this back to different times in history.
Our research has brought about interesting facts concerning the journey to domestication. Cats were welcomed and condemned in equal measures in different parts of the world. At some point, they were almost wiped out of existence, but they survived thanks to cat lovers back then—or was it the proverbial nine lives of cats? This led to their spread, and today, the number of house cats is estimated to be over 600 million and over 70 million in the U.S. alone.
We have collected all you need to know about this subject. This includes the origin of the domestic cat, the domestication or self-domestication, and how long ago this happened. We cannot finish this without narrating the bitter and the sweet part of their journey and entry into man’s home, and finally the settlement into our hearts.
The Genetic Origin of the Domestic Cat
The National Cancer Institute and the University of Oxford did a research to find out the origin of domestic cats. The ancestors of the common household cat were traced back to the Middle East. By analyzing the DNA of wild cats (Felis silvetris) from different regions in addition to domestic cats from the U.S., the U.K, and Japan, the team identified five matriarchal lines.
Four of the lines corresponded with sub-species from different regions and also with the pure-breeds and mixed breeds from the U.S, the U.K, and Japan. The fifth lineage corresponded with Felis silvetris lybica from the Middle East.
This places F.S. lybica as the common ancestor of domestic cats. F.S. lybica cats sampled from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Israel had a DNA almost identical to that of domestic cats.
This, coupled with the 2004 archeological findings can be used to conclude that the origin of the domestic cat is indeed the Middle East.
How Long Have Cats Been Domesticated?
For a long time, it was believed that domestication started taking place around 4000 years ago. This is the time when cats are said to have cohabited with their Egyptian human companions. They were recognized as helpers and protectors especially in getting rid of rodents. The cats were then deified with as much regard as gods.
It was common for Ancient Egyptians to mummify cats before burying them. As a matter of fact, this practice became so popular that people would intentionally mummify them for the ready market to be used as offerings to gods. This evidence shows a close interaction between these cats and human beings.
In 2004, a discovery made in Cyprus, an Island of Greece, shows the existence of cats about ten to twelve thousand years ago. These could not be identified as either tame or wild. A human grave would, later on, would dispel the doubts.
It was common practice to bury people with things they used in life. This particular grave had such objects plus one odd inclusion: the skeleton of an eight months old cat.
One very noticeable thing was how closely the two were buried. This could only highlight the significance with which the cat was held in the man’s life. This cat was not a native; it was a wild cat native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. It was a member of a small cat species—a possible candidate for domestication.
The discovery was further strengthened by a more recent study co-authored by Dr. Leslie Lyons, a professor and head of the Feline Genetics Laboratory at the University of Missouri in 2012. He reported that the DNA of the mummified Egyptian cats matched that of cats found in the Middle East. The same report further confirmed that the DNA matched the current Egyptian cat.
This brought the study to one conclusion: the cats being mummified in Egypt back then must have already been domesticated, opening the research to a very high possibility that domestication occurred way before then.
Having established this, it is plausible to conclude that cats have been domesticated for up to twelve thousand years.
Domestication versus Self-Domestication
Have cats been truly domesticated, or did they domesticate themselves? A look at the general topic of domestication can give us a clearer picture. As man started farming, he started domesticating animals. Ideally, every animal served a particular purpose. Cows and goats were domesticated for meat and milk while horses and donkeys were kept for transport.
He occasionally hunted for food and canines would follow him for the meat leftovers. He was to later domesticate dogs for security or as hunting companions. Either way, each animal served a purpose. Apart from this, most of these animals could be easily confined, dominated, and would eat a variety of foods including human food leftovers.
These are qualities that man paid attention to in the process of domestication—none of which cats possessed. This begs the question: why were cats domesticated by man?
Wes Warren, Ph.D., associate professor of Genetics at the Genome Institute, Washington University, is of the opinion that cats are not fully domesticated. He also attributes this partial domestication to the cats themselves. Simply put, cats self-domesticated themselves.
Warren argues that domestic cats, having split from their wild counterparts for some time, now still breed with them. Apart from this, they have constantly hunted for rodents and other prey despite having enough supply of food. However, this is hardly enough to support his claims right?
Warren and his fellow researchers further delved into the study to find out why a domestic cat would make a step further into domestication than its wild relatives. A female Abyssinian cat’s genetic sequence was compared to that of a tiger.
While many similarities were spotted between the two, there were genes that would make domestic cats more willing to get close to humans. The same would make them seek rewards. Oblivious of this, human beings offered rewards to cats for getting rid of rodents that consumed their grain.
About 3000 years before the man and the cat were buried together in the Cyprus tomb, agriculture had just begun to bloom in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent. People had adopted a more settled lifestyle from their previous hunting culture.
Farming yielded grain enough for food and surplus. Rodents could not resist the abundance of food. This, in turn, attracted cats who feasted on the rodents. In short, cats invited themselves in, and human beings were delighted with the vermin control.
With time, people grew drawn to the cats due to their docile and desirable traits. Cats also became accustomed to the new environment where food was readily available. Add the rewards the humans gave the cats as a token of thanks to the equation, and it was pretty much a done deal.
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The cats started breeding—leading to the many breeds of domestic cats known today. So, who was calling the shots here? Warren believes that the cats were.
The Bitter and the Sweet Parts of the Domestication Journey
The solitary and sometimes mysterious nature of cats has not been kind to their domestication. While ancient Egyptians and Romans revered and even worshiped them, the opposite happened in medieval Europe.
Cats found themselves in Europe after traders brought them along in their ships during their trips from Egypt. For a while, they were the beloved and must-haves for the affluent in the society.
With time their numbers soared, and they became less glamorous. The common folk, however, welcomed them into their homes. These were agrarian societies and mice were a big problem. Cats filled the important role of mousers. However, the love for the cats did not last long.
Their hunting prowess became a great concern for the religious communities. Their nocturnal nature and how they waylaid and pounced on their prey became synonymous with the devil snatching souls. By the end of the 12th century, cats, especially the ones with black coats, were associated with satanic rituals.
During this period, inquisition began with the aim of quelling dissidents within the church. This quickly shifted to witch-hunts, and the once-beloved pets found their fates intertwined with the witches’.
Pope Gregory IX declared the felines diabolical in 1232—sentiments which fueled dislike towards cats among the populace. Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 declared them idols as well as the devil’s favorite animals.
Within no time, cats were believed to be witches who had shape-shifted. They were also believed to have evil powers which pagans tapped into during their rituals. Having a cat became enough of a reason to be labeled a devil worshiper. What followed was a dark period for these pets that had previously warmed people’s hearts.
They were killed en masse. The horrors were just un-imaginable; from hanging to being burnt alive. The extermination did not spare even the wild ones; they were hunted down as well. These actions greatly reduced the number of cats and hampered their spread to other areas as well as slowing down their domestication journey.
When the black plague hit Europe in the 14th century, anti-cat sentiments were still rife. It didn’t take much time for them to be, wrongly, labeled the carriers of the bubonic fever that was sweeping through the continent. This again led to many of them being killed. The hate towards them has been cited as the reason the pandemic hit Europe.
Ships brought rat-infested grain from Asia and with them came the disease-carrying fleas. This time, though, there were no cats on board to eat the rats long before they set foot on land.
Again, once on land and with no natural predator in households, they multiplied and spread and so did the plague. By the time the second plague hit in the 17th century, there were almost no cats left in the majority of Europe.
The survival of cats was, however, ensured by avid cat lovers. In spite of facing prosecution and with death sentences hanging over their heads, they still rescued and took care of some of the felines. This was done in hiding from the authorities and community at large. After some time, it became evident that cats were unaffected by the plague and were in fact immune.
The discovery led to further scrutiny, and it was realized that rats and not cats were responsible for the bubonic fever. As it dawned on people that cats could be instrumental in eradicating the plague, almost every household wanted to possess one.
Laws that demonized cats were eventually abolished, and new ones were enacted to protect them from inhumane treatment. Talk about having nine lives!
From Mousers to Companions
The 18th century saw cats regaining their popularity. Commerce and discovery voyages introduced and aided their spread to all corners of the world. They continued to earn their keep as mousers. They were appreciated for their services but were not valued as property. People took care of them as outdoor pets.
With the world shifting to industrialization and non-agricultural based societies, the need for mousers became less and less. It became desirable to have felines who were more sociable and docile. Selective breeding also started taking place and was accompanied by rapid changes.
The cats were becoming less aggressive and possessed traits such as forming memories and ability to take a cue from fear or reward-based stimuli. They also started adorning different coat colors and patterns.
Cat lovers have been zeroing on traits like the tabby coat, blue eyes, and albinism, which has given rise to the current furry friends in couches and cat parents’ laps. The relationship between man and cat now is geared towards companionship.
The invention of cat litter in the 1940s also saw many of them invited into the house to become permanent family members.
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Cats’ domestication can be traced back to the home of the first domesticated cat, Cyprus in the Middle East. The common ancestor of today’s house cats is Felis silvetris lybica.
The journey from being a wild cat in the process of domestication to today’s house cat has been marked with both positive and negative sentiments. While cats were idolized in Egypt, they were demonized in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Their association with witchcraft and devil worship almost led to their annihilation. Another attack came when they were held responsible for the bubonic plague. Many died during these two events, but some still survived thanks to cat lovers.
Cats have been domesticated for approximately twelve thousand years. The notion that cats self-domesticated themselves has made us even more in awe of them because they chose to be with us of their own free will.
They are, however, still in touch with their wild nature, and it is common to see them display such characteristics once in a while. Many years later and with more than 40 registered breeds, people are still making efforts to domesticate cats fully. While complete dominance may never be gained, a lot of progress has been made in bridging the gap between humans and felines.
Do you believe that cats have been fully domesticated? What are your thoughts on the subject? Did you find this information helpful? Which part of the domestication process did you like or dislike most? Share your feedback with us below, and do check out our article on how to grow cat grass, in case you want to let your house cat be more in touch with his/her wild side.