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Ancient remains could be oldest pet cat

19:00 08 April 04 news service

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 Animals)
Some of the earliest tame cats may have resembled this African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica (Image: Ingrid Van Den Berg/Animals Animals)

And archaeologists have found cat bones more than 9000 years old on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which has no native feline species.

"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.

Pointing west

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)


Hazel Muir


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