People tamed cats as pets at least 9500 years ago, say
researchers who have unearthed the grave of a prehistoric tabby in
Cyprus. The Stone Age moggy appears to have been carefully placed
alongside a human corpse, along with offerings including jewellery
and stone tools.
Until now, historians thought the ancient Egyptians first
domesticated cats about 4000 years ago. But evidence suggests cats
were culturally important outside Egypt long before that. Stone and
clay figurines of cats up to 10,000 years old have turned up in
Syria, Turkey and Israel.
||Some of the
earliest tame cats may have resembled this African wildcat,
Felis silvestris lybica (Image: Ingrid Van Den Berg/Animals
And archaeologists have found cat bones more than 9000 years old
on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which has no native feline
"The first discovery of cat bones on Cyprus showed that human
beings brought cats from the mainland to the islands, but we could
not decide if these cats were wild or tame," says Jean-Denis Vigne
of the French research organisation CNRS and the National Museum of
Natural History in Paris.
Now Vigne and his colleagues have discovered the remains of a
Neolithic cat at the ancient village of Shillourokambos in Cyprus,
and the manner of its burial suggests the animal was a pet.
The cat belonged to the species Felis silvestris, the wild
cat from which domestic cats descended. Its remains lie just 40
centimetres from a 9500-year-old human grave containing valuable
offerings such as polished stones and seashells.
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Furthermore, the human and cat skeletons have identical states of
preservation. The skeletons were positioned symmetrically, with both
heads pointing west, which may have been intentional.
The cat died when it was about eight months old, and while the
cause of death is a mystery, there are no signs on the bones that
the animal was butchered for food.
Vigne thinks the proximity of the human skeleton suggests a
strong bond with the cat, which might have been killed to go to the
grave with its master. It would have made sense for early
agricultural societies to mingle with cats, he adds, because cats
could have killed the mice that nibbled precious grain supplies.
Journal reference: Science (vol 304, p 259)