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How Cats and People Grew to Love Each Other

Long before cats ruled the Internet and tamed humans to do their bidding, they had to be domesticated themselves. But the science has always been murky on when that occurred.

cat picture
A cat is pictured during a 2013 cat exhibition in Moscow. Photograph by Vasily Maximov, AFP/Getty Images

Today’s domestic cats are believed to be the descendants of ancient Near Eastern wildcats, and the previous discovery of a wildcat buried near a human in Cyprus roughly 9,500 years ago suggests some type of long-running relationship. The Egyptians famously thought very highly of cats, keeping them domestically and even administering medical treatment to them some 4,000 years ago.

Now a new study marks possibly the earliest known evidence of a beneficial relationship between humans and cats. Researchers analyzing 5,300-year-old cat bones, found at the village of Quanhucun in China, determined that the bones match up closely with those of modern domestic cats—and that people may have even fed the animals. (See “Cats Use ‘Irresistible’ Purr-Whine to Get Their Way.”)

Cats Followed Rats to Domestication

In the Yangshao period in China, farmers in the village of Quanhucun grew millet crops and kept domesticated pigs and dogs. This agricultural activity attracted rodents, which, in turn, may have attracted wildcats.

At the archaeological site, scientists uncovered ancient rodent burrows leading to grain-storage pits. They also found ceramic vessels whose features suggest they were designed to keep rodents from pillaging food stores. This means there was plenty of pest-control work for cats to do and plenty of incentive for people to encourage them to move in. (Learn about National Geographic’s Little Kitties for Big Cats initiative.)

The ancient cats’ diet provided researchers with further clues about their relationship with people. Chemical analysis of the bones showed that one cat had eaten a largely plant-based diet—in other words, human-grown grain—while another had lived to an advanced age.

“These results suggest that cats may have played a variety of roles in the settlement, ranging from mutualistic hunters and scavengers to encouraged animals or even pets,” according to the study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The benefit would’ve been mutual: Villagers got a live-in rodent exterminator to protect their grain, while wildcats got a year-round supply of food. (And presumably a steady supply of warm laps.)

In other words, you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.

Comments

  1. nancy
    February 1, 6:51 pm

    Did you ever see Andy Warhol’s “Nativity” in which the baby Jesus is holding a kitty?

  2. Cat
    January 28, 5:19 am

    Human beings, I do luv ya.

  3. amphibious
    Australia
    January 10, 6:26 pm

    Re ailurophilic Egyptians, it is striking that the only common, domestic or wild animal NOT mentioned int he Bible is … the cat.
    Previous theories as to whether dogs were the first domesticated animals focused on their use in hunting or guarding but the most likely explanation is that they were the only food source that came when called.

  4. Isi
    December 25, 2013, 4:58 pm

    Anyone who thinks that cats are evil is either ignorant or stupid. Animals are not evil, they simply react to the environment around them. Cats have long assisted us and kept us company. Show a cat a little kindness and you have a loyal friend for life. The people who have the most problems with cats (or other animals) are usually doing something to provoke a negative reaction.

  5. Michelle
    Queen Creek, AZ
    December 20, 2013, 10:39 am

    Cats don’t love us. They tolerate us. They are companions of evil.

  6. Fauzudin Md.Zain
    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
    December 19, 2013, 11:24 pm

    One of my pet cats (a male) always make a lot of cat noises besides the normal meiowing,..when he comes home from his usual walkabout, outside the compound, or when he wants something to eat, like he’s talking to us and telling us what or where he has been..!

  7. Bethy
    December 19, 2013, 10:52 pm

    Great poem Ima!

  8. Idina Adas
    December 18, 2013, 10:33 am

    One of the most overlooked aspects of the appeal of cats for the ancient world is so obvious once you see it: they kill mice. Egypt was the breadbasket of the ancient world, and when you’re storing grain, mice are the #1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 problem. It’s no wonder cats were worshiped. Something so beautiful that carried itself with such dignity, whose eyes seemed so wise, and eliminated the biggest threat to your existence? How could you not think it was sent from heaven?

  9. Ima Ryma
    December 18, 2013, 3:56 am

    Human domestication by
    The what would become household cat
    Is probably thanks to rats. Why?
    Cats are drawn where rodents are at,
    As a good source for food and fun.
    As humans left the caves to farm,
    A lot of rat damage was done
    To the grown grains. To stop this harm,
    The humans and cats struck a deal.
    The cats would rats exterminate,
    In return for steady home meal.
    A purrfect match this did create.

    A scratching back concept of yore,
    Of course, cats scratch humans backs more.