Does the internet talk about cats enough? Are you sure? Betteridge’s Law dictates that if my question was a headline, that answer would be “no,” so in hopes of fixing that, here’s some trivia about some famous or historical cats that I’ve compiled. My last article about historical cats covered a bunch of famous cats whose names we know, because knowing the name of a cat who lived like four thousand years ago is cool. So this time I’m going to cover some famous cats whose names we don’t know, because they either never had names or they weren’t written down. Not surprisingly, this is the story about the evolution of our relationship with cats down through history. Actually, it did come as a surprise to me as I was writing it, but I’ll let you pretend you saw it coming. Pull up a chair, grab your cat and enjoy purr-rusing this list whilst petting your favorite four-footed furry friend!
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The Anonymous Cat: Modern Cat
Approximate Date: Today!
The History: KITTY! From the lap lump you’re petting right now to the Kedi-esque strays in the alleys of nearly every city across the globe, Felis silvestris catus 1 is sadly the only species of the roughly 37 felids (or felines) climbing the family Felidae tree that aren’t currently endangered or threatened, seeing as they currently number something like 600 million furballs. Feral, cats usually live only about seven years or so, but an indoor cat can sleep on your clean laundry for something like sixteen years or more; the oldest cat we know of was named “Creme Puff” and made it to 38 on diet including bacon and eggs, asparagus, broccoli, and coffee with cream, so maybe there’s hope for us all.
Kitties can be smarter than you would think, if you’ve been listening to dog propaganda, but it can be difficult to get a cat to sit still for a test, much less use the number two pencil to completely fill in all the little bubbles. Scientists say that when you can get a cat to go along with intelligence tests, they score about the same as dogs, plus no one can deny they generally do an excellent job of being cats.
Despite the adoration we lavish them with on the internet, the ubiquitous Modern Cat does have downsides. Feral cats are such a problem for smaller, tasty wildlife in Australia that the nation built a huge 27 mile long cat-(and fox-)proof fence in one area to help protect some of what’s left, and US cats might be killing more than one billion birds a year. Keep in mind some scientists also estimated that 350 million to nearly a billion birds also die from smacking into windows in the United States every year, so cats aren’t the only bird-villains here, but still, cat depredation is a real problem, so please
- Keep your cats inside (they’ll live longer)
- Spay and neuter them
- Support TNR 2 programs
- Consider donating some cash or time to the plethora of groups out there that help strays.
How’d we end up with these precious predators underfoot anyway? Have they always been with us, sharpening their claws on our ancestor’s caves or something? It’s a long complex question that we can’t even begin to answer without defining our relationship with cats both past and present, and there will still be gaps, but let me take a stab at the big picture before I run us back through time for a bit more detail.
As best we can tell from a big study of cat DNA done in 2017, today’s cat sprouted from a Middle Eastern wild cat species along with our first farms, when we started growing and storing grains. Although it’s been suggested that some of those early farmers actively bred cats for their vermin-hunting traits like they’d done any other domesticated animal, most scientists disagree because:
- Ferrets and terriers were already commonly used for vermin control
- You can’t get a cat to obey any goddamn command you shout at them like a terrier, so who would have considered cats a good idea or even a success?
If the domestication of cats was a focused attempt, it was a failure, so dog people win this one.
Much more likely? Cats convinced us to start growing grain (not many people know that was their idea) and just hung around our early villages, living off the rat and mouse population bomb that farming set off. But then an odd thing happened: cats got used to us. Being able to lay on a porch without fear of nearby people who might as soon eat the cat as look at it turned out to be an adaptive trait that’s been rewarding kitties with easier access to food and shelter ever since. This has been described as ‘self-domesticating,’ and it’s also been pointed out that Modern Cat isn’t even really domesticated because:
- Modern Cat doesn’t show the usual body changes other domesticated animals do, like infantilization of facial features or the floppy ears and curly tails like many dogs have.
- Modern Cat can easily return to living in the wild and interbreed with its wild ‘cousins’.
- That 2017 DNA study found only about thirteen genes’ difference (out of about twenty thousand) between wild and “domesticated” cats.
A domesticated animal is pretty much by definition man-made, but Modern Cat is still mostly near mint, if not still in box.
The Anonymous Cat: Egyptian Cat
Approximate Date: 4,000 years ago, but really about 6,000 years ago
The History: So where did these friendly felines come from anyway? Egypt, right? Everyone knows Egyptians loved their cats, which they called “mau” by the way. Egypt gives us the first 100% solid evidence that cats had been or were becoming tame enough to be the pets we have today, not just skulking about the granaries hunting rodents when we weren’t looking. That evidence is a mural that’s about 4,500 years old that shows a cat leashed to a chair and playing with a mouse. See? A cat on a leash, inside, with people! Egyptian Cat would of course soon climb from rat-diet to deity in ancient Egypt and enjoy the whole Egyptian experience of becoming ubiquitous in Egyptian art, being made into mummies (so many cat mummies), etc. Such well known ailurophilia lead everyone to assume Egyptians were the first people to domesticate cats, at least up until 2004 when an archeological find in Cyprus dethroned Egyptian Cat. Opinion swung back again in 2008 though when the skeletons of two cats and four kittens were found in an upper class Egyptian graveyard that pushed that first Egyptian date back another two thousand years. Well, I say “Egyptian graveyard” – six thousand years ago is far enough back in time that “Egypt” as we think of it didn’t even exist yet, a time before anyone knew what a pharaoh was. It’s a bit complex to go into here, but the cross-checking the wild cat mating season against the age that the carefully buried cats died at strongly suggests they had been kept and cared for by the proto-Egyptians. So Egypt was back, baby! But where did those cats first come from?
The Anonymous Cat: China Cat
Approximate Date: 5,300 years ago
The History: This next archeological find gives some real weight to the idea that cat domestication began with opportunistic rodent-hunting. Archeologists turned up eight cat bones that were about 5,3000 years old in some ruins in a place called Quanhucun in China, along with rodent burrows in the village’s grain storage pits, so you can see why the cats were probably there. But did Chinese Cat actually live with the people, or were they just another level of opportunist attracted by easy food? Apparently Chinese Cat can be two things, according to the radioisotopes in the cats’ bones, which tell us what they were eating when they were alive 3, and that was mainly small animals that had themselves been eating grain. But wait, turns out one of these cats had also eaten a fair amount of grain too, so that means that people were probably feeding it, because cats don’t normally, you know, just eat some grain it finds lying about. It’s not scientific of me, but I’m having fun picturing this cat eating noodles with chopsticks. One of these Chinese cats was also six years old, which is a bit “old” for a wildcat, so that’s another hint that the villagers may have been taking care of at least some of these cats. But not so fast – these cat bones were found in a trash pit rather than any kind of a formal grave, so maybe Chinese Cat was just another “farm product” itself, either food or fur. As usual, the more we learn, like what the cats ate, the more questions we uncover – damn you, science! Two more questions we also can’t answer:
- Was Chinese Cat from the Middle East? If so, chances are it must have already been tame by the time they got to Quanhucun via trade routes.
- Did Chinese Cat contribute to the lineage of the modern mouser population? There wasn’t enough undamaged DNA left inside these bones for us find out.
The Anonymous Cat: Cyprus Cat
Approximate Date: 9.5 thousand years ago
The History: This is the 2004 archeological find that predated that Egyptian cat mural by about four thousand years. It’s also the oldest example we have of people (or at least one person) actually caring about a cat in some manner. What happened was archeologists found a Neolithic grave shared by both a person and a cat in the ruins of an early farming village on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea. The person had been buried with some polished stones and flint tools, while the cat was surrounded by carved shells – Cyprus Cat had been carefully buried, this was more than just bones on a trash pile. The archeologists didn’t find any marks on Cyprus Cat’s bones that might show it had been butchered in anyway, but it was only about eight months old when it died so they still think it might have been uh ‘put down’ for burial with the person. Cats aren’t native to Cyprus, so the ancient villagers must have actively brought Cyprus Cat or its ancestors over, as they had already done with other animals. That tells us Cyprus Cat was probably at least somewhat domesticated already, because trying to make a sea voyage with a cat that don’t already like you at least a little sounds like a really stupid thing to even consider doing, doesn’t it? Now imagine doing that with a cat that actively resents you.
So was Cyprus Cat the first pet cat? We’ll never know of course, but it’s clear that at least this one person of this era had some sort of special relationship to this cat that went beyond a merely tolerated presence.
The Anonymous Cat: The Five Mothers
Approximate Date: 12 thousand years ago
The History: Remember that big cat DNA study I mentioned up top in the entry for Modern Cat? Those scientists looked at DNA from 400 living cats across the globe and the remains of 350 cats from all sorts of archeological finds to piece together where Mittens came from, all those cat-roads lead to this cat-Rome, “at least” five mother cats. Now, I admit to being a bit poetic with the facts, but I’m not just making stuff up completely.
DNA comes in two flavors: the DNA that you normally think of as “DNA” that lets scientists revive dinosaurs on a remote island no matter how bad an idea that might be, and mitochondrial DNA. mDNA as it’s also called does its thing inside the mitochondria (duh), the little engines you can find inside every advanced cell that we, dinosaurs, and cats are made up of. These little organelles don’t have as much mDNA in them as the “normal” DNA you and your cat have, but every bit of that mDNA comes from your mom, which isn’t a “your mom” joke. So studying mDNA means you’re looking at the mother’s side of the family tree only, which is perfectly fine of course. This is the kind of DNA that that big study was looking at, and it all ultimately untangled down to five (or perhaps a bit more) lines of distinct matrilineal mDNA from five Middle Eastern tame-ish mamma-cats that came in out of the cold and bequeathed their descendants those thirteen genetic changes that left them less afraid and capable of living with people. As best we can tell anyway – reading and understanding DNA is currently only a little easier than than teaching your cat algebra in Swahili.
The cats and kittens that those Five Mothers left behind, like China Cat and Cyprus Cat, still probably just lived around rather than with us for thousands of years, until proto-Egyptian Cat sauntered onto the North African sands long before Egypt existed. The Egyptians probably added that final spark by breeding their cats more than anyone had before, choosing cats that were were less skittish, friendlier, less territorial, etc. Now ready to be really accepted and loved by people, Egyptian Cat became Modern Cat as it spread across Egyptians trade routes, especially by boat. Lurking Cyprus Cat and China Cat might have snuck in under cover of darkness and easy-going Egyptian Cat that sunned itself on our pyramids, but it was Modern Cat that hitched a ride as we really spread out.
Modern Cat reached the Old World and the rest of the globe roughly 2,800 years ago, but only really settled in about 1,500 years ago – “practically yesterday!” dogs might exclaim dismissively. Useful on ships and farm alike, Modern Cat lived with us less as another tamed farm product, but in closer symbiosis, because what was good for us was good for Modern Cat. The only significant change to Modern Cat since then has been the blotchy coat pattern4 that first popped up in Turkey in the 1200s; every cat before that wore their feral ancestors’ tabby or mackerel pattern. Eight out of ten Modern Cats were rocking that broken coat pattern by the 1700s as they still do today.
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So now you know how cats went from skulking around the outskirts of our farms into our homes and hearts. But people were already pretty interested in cats before these little guys came around, one could even say we were already primed for it to happen. The second part of this article will cover some instances of this, so until then, keep your cats close!
Megara Justice Machine barely knows anything at all, which is why he has to wear shoes without laces. The only thing that he’s pretty sure he knows is that he likes cats, which is why he’s written about them on the Avocado before, and just might again. You can find his first cat column, a terribly shoddy affair, here.