Over the course of 9000 years, the rise of the domesticated cat has been rapid. With cats now established across the globe, this blog post charts the ascent of this species, from the farmer’s companion, to an Egyptian Goddess, to one of the most successful domesticated pets in the world today.
The Farmer’s Companion
The first contact that humans and cats had was to fulfil a practical purpose. Around 9000 years ago, cats were seen as useful companions and were kept close by farmers for their hunting skills. The earliest farmers in the Fertile Crescent (a stretch of land where agriculture and early human civilizations thrived in the Middle East) used cats to keep rats and mice away from crops and grain stores. In other words, cats first lived alongside humans as a form of pest control, whereby both humans and cats benefitted from each other’s presence. As agriculture and more permanent human settlements grew out beyond the Fertile Crescent, the cat followed into these new territories.
It’s important to note, however, that at this early stage the cat wasn’t domesticated but seen as a useful ‘farm-hand’. It wasn’t until the age of the Egyptians that the cat first stepped foot into the home.
The Egyptian Effect
The first indication that cats were becoming domesticated was during the Egyptian era, some 3600 years ago. The Egyptian culture revered the cat as a sacred symbol, and the cat hasn’t forgotten it! Anyone who has studied the Egyptians would be familiar with the Egyptian Goddess Bastet, who was the cat-headed Goddess of Warfare and Protection. Paintings that date back to the Egyptian period depict the cat as a common member of the Egyptian household, and they were a staple of Egyptian society for many centuries. Indeed, Egyptians cherished cats to such an extent that they were banned from being exported to different civilizations!
Moving into Roman Europe, South-East Asia & The Rest Of The World
Having thrived in Egyptian civilisations for centuries, cats finally moved for global domination around 2000 years ago. It’s thought that cats crossed both land and sea by way of trade, either by ship or on wagons. With the earliest records of European domestication in Greece, the cat continued northward and began to be introduced across the European continent. When ships sailed from the Egyptian empire out into Roman settlements, cats were almost certainly kept on board to keep any rat infestations at bay. These cats then settled on land and continued to thrive thereafter.
At a similar time and on the other side of the globe, cats made their way into China and India via trade routes. Little is known about the precise time when cats became introduced into the Americas, although Christopher Columbus (15th & 16th Century) and other explorers reportedly carried cats to control vermin and kept them as a symbol of luck. Australasia’s introduction to the domestic cat was even later, in and around the 1600s.
Breeding For Beauty & The Modern World
There is a general consensus that breeding cats for physical appearance didn’t begin until the 19th Century, most probably on the British Isles. Breeding is a relatively recent trend which helps to explain why the vast majority of cats share similar statures and facial structures. It’s interesting to note that cats show much less variety breed-to-breed than dogs because dogs were historically bred for specific tasks such as hunting or herding. Cats, on the other hand, weren’t under such selective pressure and have only undergone a few centuries of breeding programmes.
The blog post barely scratches the surface on a huge range of information that is available on this topic. For more information, please visit this webpage. This is a simplified post on a topic which is fascinating, so we would encourage anyone to read more about it if they’re interested.