Thursday, 14 August 2008

Cats of the Ancient World

Silver Egyptian Mau, Qetesh, at twenty-three and a half weeks old[Silver Egyptian Mau, Aalspotz Kleopatra "Qetesh", at twenty-three and a half weeks old.]

For the past forty-million years, cats have naturally made their homes on every continent on Earth, apart from Antarctica and Australia, having the same origins as dogs, raccoons, bears, and pigs. The cat evolved from a branch of the family called miacis, which contained all these animals mentioned, though the other animals emerged from a separate branch to the cat. Around twelve-million years ago, the true cat finally evolved, bringing about the South American Wildcat, Tuscany Jaguar, Lynx, and Cheetah. Wild cats of the world started to become domesticated by ancient peoples, though it is unknown exactly when the cat was first domesticated and which culture was responsible for making this step. It is sometimes suggested that the ancient Egyptians were the first to tame cats, possibly after discovering the slim, golden cats from Nubia, where they were considered the bringers of good luck. One of the ways of trying to discover when cats first became domesticated is by looking at evidence of cat remains and cats in artwork at burial sites, or any other human-orientated site. Remains of cats exist at Jericho (Israel) dating to approximately nine-thousand years ago and at Harappa (Indus Valley) from about four-thousand years ago; both in the form of a cat's tooth. Pottery depicting what is supposedly a wildcat has also been discovered at Jericho, dating to approximately 6700 BC. Dating to around seven-thousand years ago, more cat remains were discovered in association with humans at Cyprus. This find is very significant in that there is no cat in the fossil record at Cyprus prior to humans first immigrating there, so humans must have taken the cats there with them, possibly as family companions, though evidence shows that they were still physically wild cats. Dating to around 2700 BC, an ivory figurine of a resting cat was discovered at Lachish (Israel), as well as a terracotta cat head found at a Minoan site at the eastern shore of Crete. There was also a cat footprint found in a Roman Period town in England; the footprint was made in a tile, possibly from a domesticated or tamed cat, as it would be unlikely that a wild cat would choose to loiter about at human worksites. The remains of wild cats have even been excavated at Pre-historic grave sites in Egypt. At Abedju (Abydos) in Upper Egypt, seventeen cats accompanied by offering bowls were discovered in a mudbrick pyramid. What is hard to ascertain from these finds, and others, is whether these are the beginings of taming and domestication of wild cats in these areas, and if so, had it been going on many years prior to them being buried? When a wild cat was first bred in captivity amongst humans and made to live closely with them, not only does the cat's physical appearance begin to alter (body size and coat colour primarily), but their character changes, too. Having a human about to leave food out for them, giving them comfortable shelter night after night, and tending to them when they are ill, keeps a cat in permanent infantile stage which they never quite grow out of; this means that a cat is always kitten-like and the cat then needs the human interaction to keep happy. Therefore, eventually a wild cat - or indeed, many animals - kept in captivity will become tame and loving to their owners. This is what eventually took place in the ancient world, regardless of where and when, and this is what led to modern people having cats in their home from many different species of feline from different parts of the world.


Diane said...

You have quoted from some of my Egyptology articles - for which I am most grateful. I think, perhaps, that kat Newkirk sent them to you. I really like your blog and am going to send the link to others.
If you would like to include a link to the Feline Deities of the Underworld, please let me know and I can give you the Google address. I also have a few articles on cats (in Theban Tombs and also in satirical papyri and ostraka) which I could make available to you.
Kind regards
Diane Leeman

number9 said...

If u have any really good and fairly accuate links to the role of cats in ancient egypt and feline goddesses I could use them in coming up with a great powerpoint presentation for my class! thanks Lynn

Apple said...

This is so exciting! I am Jewish and I have a silver Egyptian Mau just like pictured here, and I find out, here on this website, that it came out of the wild to humans in Jericho, and way earlier than I have heard of before. No wonder my cat loves fresh challah (braided egg bread)!

Tina May