A Short History of the Domestication of the Cat

Cat Domestication in Ancient Egypt and the Middle East

Photo of Cat Goddess Bastet
Photo of Cat Goddess Bastet. Photo Credit: © iStockPhoto/Ashwin Kharidehal Abhirama

Historians differ on how it came about, but they agree that ancient Egyptians worshipped cats as gods. Modern pundits add, "and cats have never forgotten," but that is a different subject. Although dogs were domesticated somewhat earlier, it has been generally agreed that the Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to domesticate the cat, around 2000 B.C., give or take a few centuries. However, only recently, evidence arose which indicates that cats may have been first domesticated in the middle east, around 10,000 years ago.

On the other hand, even though Egypt has lost the title of the first civilization to domesticate the cat, there is no doubt that the ancient Egyptians did, indeed domesticate the cat.

Domestication of the Cat in Egypt

When first domesticated by the Egyptians, the cat was known as miw (to see). Another version of that name was miu (he or she who mews), and that unique greeting of cats to humans exists to this day.

The first Egyptian cats were wild, both the African wild cat (Felis silvestris libyca), and the jungle cat (Felis chaus). An interesting side note is that our present-day Egyptian Mau is thought to have descended from the African wild cat, which resembled its modern-day relatives in both size and coloring.

Papyrus renderings of spotted cats dating back to this time suggest that the African wild cat probably hunted alongside their Egyptian caretakers. They also killed poisonous snakes (cobras and vipers) and rodents that abounded in homes and granaries, helping to protect both human life and precious food stores.

The grateful Egyptians rewarded the cat by leaving out food to encourage wild cats to stick around. Thus, the first "working cats" settled into a coexistence with man, an arrangement that would continue for centuries to come. Exhibiting the same opportunistic tendencies that the cat of today so effectively employ, the wild cats soon moved into Egyptian homes in the villages.

Here, they found warmth, a convenient food source, and shelter, where they could give birth to their kittens in relative safety.

The domestication of the cat evolved over a period of 500 years. We know this from discovered drawings on stone, called ostraca, that depict the cat involved in daily life in ancient Egypt, whether lying around the house or accompanying men on hunts.

The Cat Meets the Goddess Bastet

As luck would have it, the Egyptians just happened to worship a goddess named Bastet, who resembled the cat. This resemblance was not lost on the people, nor on the royalty, who likely viewed the cat as a godsend for protecting food and grain from deadly snakes and rodents. After all, the villages that had the most food and grain wielded the most power back in those days. It was just a matter of time before such admiration elevated cats to godhood. In fact, feline images soon became linked to the cat-like goddess Bastet, who also went by several other names, including Bast, Ubasti, and Pasch.

The worship of Bastet became so powerful and prevalent that a city named Bubastis (known today as Tell Basta) was built in her honor. It has even been surmised that Egyptian women, wanting to resemble their beloved deity Bastet, traced elaborate mascara markings over and around their eyes to give their faces a more catlike lure.

The Middle Eastern Influence on the Cat

An astonishing archaeological find of a Neolithic grave on the island of Cyprus was made a few years ago, which resulted in new thinking about the true origins of the domestic cat we love today. The Neolithic age (also called the Stone age) started around 10,000 B.C., and marked the start of development of tools, polished stones, and agriculture, both in Cypress and in the area known as "the fertile crescent."

The skeleton of a cat was found buried in close proximity to the remains of a human burial. Scientists believe that the close proximity, the degree of preservation, and positions of the bodies of the human and the cat may indicate that the two were buried together. The remains of the human, estimated to have been 30 years of age, was also accompanied by flint tools, axes, and other "offerings." The researchers believe that the individual was accorded high status, and that he may have had a significant relationship with the cat.

While cats may eventually have been kept as pets in these agricultural areas, the finding of charred bones of cats near this site, and from a similar period, may suggest that cats were also eaten as food. The large size and resemblance of the Cyprus cat skeleton indicated he was of the Felis silvestris lybica subspecies. Present day DNA testing has linked wild cats of the middle east to domestic cats, with the astonishing conclusion that the cats that we know as house cats today originated between 130,000 and 160,000 years ago with the silvestris lybica.