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.. Domestic cats & their origins

It has long been thought that cats were domesticated by the ancient Egyptians but archeological findings in Cyprus suggest that the relationship is far older than even this.

In ancient Egypt the domestication of cats was encouraged & money was even paid to those who took cats to the royal granaries of a night time, to hunt & deter vermin.

As a result, cats rose through the ranks of a polytheistic, Zoolatrous culture until they were deified & worshipped. Gods took on the characteristics of felids, the goddess Bastet had the head of a cat & was thought of as a gentle protector (taking on the head of a lion in times of conflict). Cats became highly prized pets & were sacrificed & mummified so that they could accompany the deceased into the afterlife. It was thought that as a result of this close relationship with egyptian man, the domestic cat then spread across the globe.

Remains were found in Cyprus which suggest an earlier relationship, beyond prey & food source. Cats are not native to the island & yet their remains were found buried alongside important humans. This suggested that they had been brought along by ship for cohabitation or had perhaps become stranded. Either way, suggesting some sort of companionship. The finds were dated at being six thousand years old, at around four thousand years B.C.

Even earlier remains have been found in sites such as Jericho, dating to between six & seven thousand B.C. but these could simply be the remnants of animals hunted for meat & or fur.

It is most likely & it has been researched that the majority of modern day domestic cats, emerged from the middle & near eastern wildcats.

Environmental & geographic situations may have allowed for the relationship to form. In Africa where the life of a hunting small cat is particularly perilous, the abundant prey animals attracted to human settlements offered rich hunting grounds & protection from larger predators. It just so happened that the great apes valued pest control beyond the immediate resources a wild cat could offer them. Certain cats living around these settlements would have gradually "tamed" themselves & over generations until becoming dependant on the human habitation. You can perhaps imagine the scene in an early mud hut in the firelight, one of the villages visiting or resident wildcats jumps down from the open window  to investigate the remnants of the evenings meal. If the hunting had been good, satisfied & relaxed hominids might toss their visitor a titbit. If times were not so good, the predators may have been welcomed in to protect what little food there was, or perhaps even to be kept close by for a future meal.

The environmental & geographic conditions within which other wildcats coexist with humans, may not have presented the same opportunity for symbiotic good fortune over a course of time. The European wildcat for example has resisted any imediate attempts at domesticating, although their DNA is present in pet cat populations. Their temperate hunting grounds may have simply been richer with fewer predators, so the need to cohabit with people has been less helpfull. Whatever the reason, many wildcats of the world have learned that they will not gain from our companionship. 

The African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) was recognised most probably for its pest control capabilities. This cat was believed to be the main ancestor of our domestic animals, but there are others in the genetic mix and the origins of our pets may not be what we think!

The Leopard cat is a good example of how cats can interbreed, to create new breeds.

European wildcats may have introduced the agouti (classic tabby) pattern which is ideally suited for camoflage in deciduous forests. Over time as cats spread across the globe & they came into contact with other individuals & species, the gene pool increased across continents. Over thousands of years, some wild species will have made contributions to this mixture, creating the hybridised domestic cats we see today. A modern example of this can be observed, when sexually entire bengal cats come into rescue centres having been found as strays. Bengal cats are very instinctually active & are very likely to have mated, so contributing wild cat genes to any resulting litters.

Natural selection within domesticating animals will have been of benefit, to the individuals less likely to stray from human cohabitation. As a result, through generations, the animals tamed. As genetic anomalies occurred, the breed cats were then selectively extracted from the enormous collective gene pool.

 

The juvenile leopard cat that came into Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, found straying in Chiswick!

The juvenile leopard cat that came into Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, found straying in Chiswick!

The Eurasian lynx is the largest of the bob tailed cats, they are an intelligent cat with strong spacial awareness. They have a wide distribution across Eurasia

The Eurasian lynx is the largest of the bob tailed cats, they are an intelligent cat with strong spacial awareness. They have a wide distribution across Eurasia

The Pallas cat lives in the himalayan foothills & has the longest fur of any cat (winter coat)

The Pallas cat lives in the himalayan foothills & has the longest fur of any cat (winter coat)

Servals have the longest legs of any cat species, perfect for leaping in the air to catch a bird in flight & to raise those radar ears to locate prey.

Servals have the longest legs of any cat species, perfect for leaping in the air to catch a bird in flight & to raise those radar ears to locate prey.

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