How did we come to have domestic cats? It’s an interesting question, and one we don’t have the complete answer to. Experts haven’t yet reached a conclusion that everyone can agree upon when it comes to exactly how cats evolved to become domesticated pets.
Although no one’s let the cat out of the bag quite yet (come on, that one was funny, right?) there are several plausible theories. So plausible, in fact, that more than one of them might be correct. Which means cats might have been domesticated more than once during the history of humankind.
Or maybe all of these theories as to how domestic cats came to be are off the mark and instead it’s actually the cats who tamed us?
Whatever the real story is, here are some of the more believable theories floating around.
The leading theory on how domestic cats came about
Years and years ago, human hunter gatherers were constantly moving. They usually used or consumed everything that they hunted or gathered. As a result, they left hardly any traces behind (not like the carbon footprints we leave today!) and as a result, rats and mice didn’t have much to gain by hanging around.
However, when society evolved to a point where agriculture started, humans tended to stay put for longer. Our supply of food thanks to crops and stores (or markets, back in the day) meant that we started to attract more rodents to our communities.
The growing rodent population in human-inhabited areas is believed to be what first attracted cats into the same living spaces as humans. Though of course, we’re not talking about domesticated cats just yet. These humans likely weren’t feeding cats – they were just co-existing because the cats would kill rats. A symbiotic relationship, of sorts.
It’s clear that right from the very start, cats cottoned on the fact that humans were key to getting a good meal. What can we say? Some things never change.
The history of domestic cats
So this answers the main question of why domestic cats eventually became part of human society. But it doesn’t give us any clues as to when.
At what point did cats go from being merely visitors to becoming part of the family?
Luckily, historians have discovered some artefacts over the years which have helped us join the dots.
7500–7200 BC: Cyprus
Cyprus was the site of a grave discovered in 2001 that contained the remains of not just a man, but a cat, and prized possessions. It’s not too much of a leap to assume the cat was a beloved pet. This specific grave is around 10,000 years old, which suggests cats were domesticated…well…a long time ago.
If that wasn’t interesting enough, it gets better. Cyprus has no native mammals. So not only is the grave evidence that domestic cats existed this early on, but it seems to indicate humans brought cats with them to Cyprus. Surely we can assume some kind of human-feline bond existed which pre-dates this grave?
So, this clue doesn’t give us exact answers. But it did tell historians that cats were likely domesticated somewhere in the Middle East in roughly 7500 BC.
3100 BC: Egypt
Remember, the Cyprus discovery was recent, having happened only twenty years ago.
Until that point, experts were of the opinion that the home of domestic cats was Egypt. This isn’t surprising. Ancient Egyptian artefacts have cats everywhere. Sculptures, paintings, mummified cats, hieroglyphs… And the most well-known one, the Sphinx.
We assume cats were treasured, or even revered, as they’re often depicted in the arms gods and goddesses in Ancient Egyptian historical works.
If you love cats as much as they Egyptians did, read our article to find an Egyptian cat name.
3000 BC: A different type of domestic cat in China
Today’s domestic cats all share a common ancestor in the African Wild Cat. But research seems to indicate that another species of cat – the Leopard cat – was briefly or partially domesticated in China.
Essentially, domestication of the Leopard cat didn’t last and, once Middle Eastern domestic cats arrived in China with travellers, the Leopard cats were replaced. Read more about that in our Siamese cat profile.
An interesting fact is that today, Bengal cats are the only breed with Leopard cat genes remaining.
When and where did domestic cats come from?
To sum it all up, cats have actually been domesticated twice. Firstly, some 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, which is where most of our common house cats today come from. But they were also domesticated briefly in China, around 5,000 years ago.
And if you want a cat which encompasses all parts of history, you’re looking at a Bengal.
Affordable cat insurance
While we’re not sure when domestic cats first started lounging on human laps (or sitting on laptops) and meowing for treats, we know they’re now much-loved parts of the family.
Then take look at our pet insurance plans. And know that if you have more than one furkid, you’re eligible for a multiple-pet discount. The more the merrier, we say!
Domestic cats – over to you
Does your cat live the domesticated life, or do they like to switch families from time to time? After all, they act like we’re guests in their homes sometimes! Share your best cat story in the comments below.