For many years, it was assumed that the Ancient Egyptians first domesticated cats about 4,000 years ago. They used them to control vermin pests around their food stores. They were revered as hunters and worshiped as gods. There was a death penalty for killing cats, and cats were mummified before being buried. There are stories of Egyptians rescuing cats from house fires before anything else, and when a cat died, the family of owners would shave their eyebrows, indicating their mourning. When their eyebrows grew back, the mourning period was over. The goddess Bastet, commonly depicted as a cat or as a woman with a cat’s head, was among the most popular deities of the Egyptian pantheon. She was the keeper of hearth and home, protector of women’s secrets, guardian against evil spirits and disease, and the goddess of cats.
But new research reveals that our relationship with cats has been going on a lot longer. Archaeological excavations over the last decade have proven that the Near Eastern WIldcat is the closest relative of the modern-day domestic cat and was bred by Mesopotamian farmers, probably as pest control, as long as 12,000 years ago. Dr Andrew Kitchener, a Zoologist at the National Museum of Scotland, looked for markers in mitochondrial DNA to trace the kitty family tree.
Cats spread quickly throughout the Middle East and Europe. According to many hadiths, the Prophet Mohammed (570-632) prohibited the persecution and killing of cats. He purportedly cut off the sleeve of his prayer robe rather than wake his favourite cat, a female named Muezza, who was sleeping on it. In Islam, cats were and are regarded as the ideal pet, and permitted to enter homes and mosques.
The Ancient Romans also admired cats, which were seen as a symbol of liberty. In the Far East, cats were valued for their ability to protect treasured scrolls from rodents.
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that cats became demonized in Europe, linked to witches and the devil. Many were killed in an effort to ward off evil, which, ironically, helped spread the plague throughout Europe. We still see vestiges of that demonization today: you never see an arch-villain with a dog in his lap! But while some people still demonize cats for their killing ways, or their aloof natures, many more celebrate cats for their companionable natures, their mischievous ways, and their beauty.
Cats came to North America on ships along with Europeans, and spread rapidly across the continent. (There is some evidence that indigenous peoples domesticated bobcats 2000 years ago, but bobcats are genetically distinct from the domestic cat.)
One thing is clear from this brief history, and that’s that humans are collectively responsible for the welfare of cats. We domesticated them, we employed them, we spread them all over the world. Our companions throughout history deserve to be properly cared for, protected from the dangers of the outside world, and particularly from us. Keep cats safe!