Science: Prehistoric Cats II

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.  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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This is the second part of two articles about anonymous historical cats (Part One), and is really more about how people have always appreciated them artistically, rather than being about any particular individual cat (mostly).  Sure, the earliest farming people had probably been interacting with the wild cats that would become our fuzzy friends as far back as twelve thousand years ago, but humanity left clues demonstrating we had already been fascinated with (large) cats for at least three times as long.  For example, there’s tons of lion-based art from that both pre- and post-dates house cats, such as the Mycenaean Lion Gate from 13th c. BCE 1.  Lions alone were so popular that I could spend the rest of my life just listing lion art much less talking about it, so instead, I’ve collected just a few notable examples from both the Old and the New Worlds that I think clearly illustrate our ancestors passion for panthers that set us up to fall for our smaller feline friends when they showed up.



The Anonymous Cat:  Sacred Cat Rug

Approximate Date:  2,500 years ago (unproven)

The History:  OK, so this one’s kind of silly, but I don’t dispute that the Villa Zorayda Museum in St. Augustine, Florida is a weird sort of museum/event space with a weird sort of rug they call “The Sacred Cat Rug” that has a crude, cat-like image on it, but I can’t vouch for anything past that.  They claim that the rug is made of cat fur, is the oldest rug in existence at about 2,500 years old, and that it was bought from treasure hunters in 1913 Egypt wrapped around a bejeweled severed human foot. Oh, and also that it bears a curse that kills anyone who dares tread upon it. Wait, what?  How do they know it’s made of cat fur, and from what sort of cat? And whose foot was that? And what about the curse too? “While it’s unknown if this curse is true 2, there’s a rumor that when the rug was final [sic] restored, a lifeless cat was discovered stretched out on the entrance steps of the museum.”

So… is any of that true?  Does it really matter, coming from a place that’s just about a half-step away from a roadside attraction housing an ‘oddity collection’ from the late 1880s?  Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? The cat image on the rug does look African to my untrained eye at least, not Egyptian, but I can’t say past that.  You can see the rug for yourself online or on the museum’s second floor if you want to visit the severed foot in person, because who doesn’t think of mummified body parts as entertainment?



The Anonymous Cat:  Five North American Panther Images (which might double as my indie band’s next album title)

Approximate Dates:  800 years ago / 4,000 years ago / 2,000 years ago? / 1,100 years ago / Undated

The History:  The Petrified Forest National Park is a beautifully inhospitable stretch of Arizona best known for the numerous and colorful fossilized Late Triassic tree trunks weathering out across the desert park, but that’s naught to do with cats, right?  What does is a petroglyph 3 that’s said to be a cougar or “rock panther”, one of the many petroglyphs created inside the park by Native Americans about eight hundred years ago.  It’s a fairly simple image: the feline faces right with paws like rotating suns radiating curved claws at the end of four straight legs, its face towards us with open mouth and empty orbits for eyes, sort of like a cartoon ghost. You can see it today inside the park’s Rainbow Museum if you visit.

Researching this petroglyph for this article, I was surprised to find this wasn’t the only pre-Western North American panther depiction (South America is of course overflowing with jaguar art).  For example, Panther Cave along the Lower Pecos River in Texas has some of the biggest and oldest American pictographs, 4 which includes a titular red panther over ten feet long that’s springing to the left, which is about contemporaneous with the Pyramids at four thousand years old.  Rendered in profile again but with few cat-identifying details except for the shape of its head (or maybe the photos weren’t good), the lower ends of its straight legs are faded or just gone, but you can still make out the patterned marks on the torso for the cat’s fur and what I take to be whiskers on its face – and sharp teeth too. The panther’s long thin tail is perhaps placed a bit low on the sausage-like body’s rump, arcing up and away, making this almost look more like a happy cat at play than a fearsome panther.

I also discovered a third feline on the Panther Panel in the Bears Ears National Monument, San Juan County Utah from maybe two thousand years ago: even more roughly drawn, it looks like a hotdog with four broomstick-like legs, and a mouth of teeth biting a human figure’s – flute?  Arm? The cat’s claws on those broomstick stiff legs are still evident enough, as are what appears to be the pointed ears, although they’ve very close together. Like the red Panther Cave cat above, its tail isn’t curving back above it’s body, but here points straight out. Even with the clumsy style, it still feels like it’s related to the Petrified Forest rock panther, even though it may be close to a thousand years older.

The fourth panther image is in Pennsylvania, and is much different in artistic style, reminding me of something that might have been carved by lost Vikings.  Don’t worry though, I’m not about to go all weird Chariots Of The Gods here… or am I?  This petroglyph is perhaps 1,100 years old and the people who’ve studied it say it’s a depiction of “Mishibizhiw [or ‘Mishipeshu’], the Underwater Panther” from the Algonquin belief system, a mythological water being/monster from the Great Lakes region whose name translates as “the Great Lynx”.  Described as having copper scales and the head and paws of a giant cat but with dagger-like spikes along its back and extremely long tail, Mishipeshu is a powerful creature said to be an enemy of the air spirit Thunderbird. I found some spooky snippets of Underwater Panther Mishebeshu5 folklore from Ojibwe sources too:

Sure I saw the water monster!

Why do you think I got back here so fast?

Yes, that was me

sitting in a tree by the lake

wishing myself into a walking stick

and making cracking-leaves sounds

and making wishes on myself.

That’s when I saw him!

I couldn’t think straight so thought crooked,

which is how I got to be

a snake

come winding out

and safe at home.

All because I saw him.


Mishebeshu is the uncanny element in this world, the hidden form beneath the ice, which may suddenly crack in winter. He is the one who pulls boaters and swimmers to their deaths and the one who makes the ground go soft beneath your feet.

Now, with all that in mind, here’s where my story of innocently researching strange old myths and legends takes a Lovecrafty turn and I uncover a vast, terrible truth… yeah, about cat petroglyphs in North America.

See, I found a fifth, apparently undated, panther petroglyph documented in the Alabama Hills near the middle eastern edge of California 6.  Meme-like, this one is a stylistic dead-ringer for the Petrified Forest rock panther, as you can see in my header image up top showing Petrified Forest Panther followed by Alabama Hills Panther, side by side.  Alabama Hills Panther also faces right with claws curling like a rolling koosh ball, and its face turning towards us to stare with empty eye sockets and reveal an open mouth of sharp teeth. This shouldn’t be too surprising as these two petroglyphs were found only about 770 miles apart.  But… what are those on the Alabama Panther’s torso? Five distinct spines, three above, two below, making this panther a perfect mix of the Petrified Forest panther and the descriptions of Underwater Panther from the Great Lakes area, over two thousand miles away.  You can see this too, right, I’m not going crazy here?!  If this were a Lovecraft story, this write-up would probably end here, followed by an added note from the authorities about how my body was lost out on one of the Great Lakes, my small boat having been holed by curious, large claw marks.

Did this supernatural panther figure span Native American cultures across North America?  Thunderbird is an important mythic creature in some Native American cultures along the Northwest Coast, and has been noted in similar forms across the continental US in the southeast, east coast and – get this – the Great Lakes area, so yes it’s possible these panther petroglyphs are all related and that the mythological meme of Underwater Panther once straddled many cultures, times, and ground in pre-Western North America.  I didn’t see any discussion saying so online, so maybe “something happens” to people who find out, before they get to tell anyone.

Anyway, getting back to the Petrified National Forest where all this began, it’s great place to  pick up a T-shirt with the “rock panther” petroglyph on it, to see the remarkably colorful petrified wood, and if rocks aren’t your thing, to entertain yourself by feeding Cheetos or other snacks to the numerous ravens.  My girlfriend and I sometimes call her cat Stormy “rock panther” because of the way his long tail sometimes arches back up over his torso, far enough to touch his shoulder blades with the tip, much like these petroglyph panthers.  Maybe instead of my body being lost in the Great Lakes, this Lovecraftian story should end with me nervously eyeing that cat – his full name is “Stormageddon, Dark Lord Of All”, after all.



The Anonymous Cat:  Illinois Cat

Approximate Date:  Two thousand years ago

The History:  Besides being all about the Underwater Panther, Native American cultures from the Great Lakes area down the Mississippi River basin to the Gulf Of Mexico had been building large burial mounds for two thousand years before Westerners crashed the party, and back at the start of that period, some members of the Hopewell culture in Illinois buried a cat in one of their mounds – not a house cat of course, but a bobcat kitten that was about four to seven months old when it died.  The kitten had been placed in its grave respectfully, with crossed paws and adorned with a bear-tooth and shell necklace. There were no trauma marks on the kitten’s complete skeleton, and based on its age at death, it’s been worked out that it may have died of either disease or malnutrition after being orphaned or taken from its mother. This is the only such find in any of the fourteen mounds in Illinois and the only known bobcat burial ever, so this cat must have mattered to someone or someones a great deal, although we don’t know why.  Except who wouldn’t want to adopt a cute kitten from a species that’s already tamable enough and still too small once fully grown to offer any real threat?  Yet if this bobcat kitten was just a mere pet, wouldn’t they have buried it in the village instead, like we know the Hopewell did with their dogs?  We just don’t really know what was going on here, other than our ongoing fascination with cats.

The Anonymous Cat: Cave Lions

Approximate Date:  30,000 years ago

The History:  Long, long before we started to grow our own crops and attract small wildcats to prey on the resulting rodents, some people crawled into the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France and drew some very well observed animals on its walls, including several ‘cave lions,’ or Panthera spelaea.  Cave lions were a now-extinct species of lions that didn’t actually live in caves, probably, but got called that because a few of their skeletons were found in some caves, probably because that’s a great place for skeletons to remain untouched by time.  They’re a distinct species that evolved probably less than 600,000 years ago and were already gone by about 13,000 years ago, once the ice age to which they had adapted warmed up. Larger than African lions by just a bit, these ice age cats really held our ancestor’s attentions as numerous depictions of them have been found in many locations.  These drawings of them found in Chauvet Cave are the earliest known European cave paintings, and are so accurate that we can tell the sex of the lions drawn and even teach us a thing or two about the species, such as how cave lions didn’t have manes like African lions.

The idea that these ice age people were so intimately familiar with what these lions looked like that they could crawl into a cave and draw them on the wall by torch light (perhaps) is just astounding to me.  I mean, they obviously spent a lot of time looking at all these animals they drew, plus the lions were an apex predator, so no doubt that alone impressed people, yet how close do you have to get to see a lion so clearly, or have the time to study their faces so well that you can render them so perfectly?  Maybe the artist got treed by some cave lions once? Who knows? You can see these beautiful drawings really well in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams documentary film about the Chauvet Cave artwork.


The Anonymous Cat:  The German Lion Man, aka The Löwenmensch Figurine, aka Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel

Approximate Date:  35,000 to 40,000 years ago

The History:  Probably not that far away temporally from the preceding Chauvet Cave Lions, this prehistoric mammoth-ivory statue is just over a foot tall, depicts a human with a lion’s head, and was discovered in the German cave Hohlenstein-Stadel (unimaginatively, “Hollow Rock”) back in 1939.  World War Two broke out a week after it was discovered, so take that, cursed Sacred Cat Rug! The German name, “Löwenmensch”, accurately means “lion-human” as we’re not sure about its sex (remember, male cave lions didn’t have manes). It’s both the oldest figurative art ever found and the oldest art that depicts an animal, so of course it had to be cat related!  A similar ivory figure, well more lion than lion-man, was found in another cave not too far away, so this may have been some sort of defined religious figure for the people in the area, not just some random doodling in ivory (which is estimated to have taken “more than 370 hours” to make anyway).

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Keeping such long-time fascination with big cats in mind, is it any wonder we took to these less-dangerous tiny lions and mini-panthers once they started hanging around our new villages?  Just try and imagine being one of those early farmers, sitting around in one of those first farming villages and worrying about all those damn rodents infesting your grain stores – and then seeing one of these furtive shadow-lurking felines catch and eat one of those vermin.  You might even toss one of the wary beasts that dares approach some scraps like you feed your dog, only to one day have it move in closer and meow for more.  Holy shit a talking cat!  Imagine being that first person to stumble across a litter of kittens somewhere and to pick up one of those cute little things, and maybe later have the grown adult cat relaxed enough around you to let you touch it, to pet it, for it to sit in your lap and purr!  Imagine being that first person to live with a cat!  Egyptians knew their magical deities when they saw ‘em, and every pet owner knows this feeling to some extent.  The good news is you can experience this feeling right now if you have a cat – or any other pet, even a dog: put down your phone, get up from your computer, and go say hi to your animal companion, they’re right over there and will enjoy spending time with you, as improbable as that sounds and is.

Megara Justice Machine is finding it more and more difficult to not talk about cats and may soon have to seek professional help, or at least find something else to write about.  If you’d care to morbidly chart the advance of his symptoms, you can search The Avocado archives for his articles on music, astronomy and other, distinctly non-feline animals.