The earliest known association between cats and humans dates possibly as far back as the origins of agriculture in the Middle East, about 9,500 years ago. A cat skeleton accompanying that of a human dated to that time was discovered in southern Cyprus. Although some sources note that this finding suggests that cats had undergone some degree of domestication in that location, other sources (citing evidence that the cat genome did not differ that much from that of the African wildcat during this period) argue that cats may have domesticated themselves by choosing to live in humanaltered landscapes. Fossil evidence found in China dating to approximately 5,300 years ago revealed that cats similar in size to modern domestic cats fed on small graineating animals, such as rodents, and millet in agricultural settings. Although research suggests that these cats were actually leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis), which were replaced by modern domestic cats (F. catus) before 3000 bce, this discovery suggests that humans allowed cats to hunt mice and other rodents that threatened grain stores and possibly fed the cats or allowed them to consume leftover food.
Although the cat was proclaimed a sacred animal in Egypt in the 5th and 6th dynasties (c. 2465–c. 2150 bce), it had not necessarily been domesticated at that time. It is probable that the ancient Egyptians partnered with the cat because they realized its value in protecting granaries from rodents. Their affection and respect for this predator led to the development of religious cat cults and temple worship of cats. There are no authentic records of domestication earlier than 1500 bce, however.
Cats have long been known to other cultures. Wall tiles in Crete dating from 1600 bce depict hunting cats. Evidence from art and literature indicates that the cat was present in Greece from the 5th century bce, and tiles featuring cats appeared in China from 500 bce. In India cats were mentioned in Sanskrit writings around 100 bce, while the Arabs and the Japanese were not introduced to the cat until about 600 ce. The earliest record of cats in Britain dates to about 936 ce, when Howel Dda, prince of southcentral Wales, enacted laws for their protection.
Even though all cats are similar in appearance, it is difficult to trace the ancestry of individual breeds. Since tabbylike markings appear in the drawings and mummies of ancient Egyptian cats, presentday tabbies may be descendants of the sacred cats of Egypt. The Abyssinian also resembles pictures and statues of Egyptian cats. The Persian, whose colouring is often the same as that of mixed breeds (although the length of hair and the body conformation are distinctive), was probably crossed at various times with other breeds. The tailless Manx cat, like the hairless Sphynx cat and curlycoated Devon Rex, is a mutation. The ancestry of Persian and Siamese cats may well be distinct from that of other domestic breeds, representing a domestication of an Asian wild cat. In fact, nothing is known of the ancestry of the Siamese types, and there is no living species of Asian cat that could have served as ancestor.
Associations with human culture
The cat has long played a role in religion and witchcraft. In the Bible, “cat” is mentioned only in the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah. The cat figured prominently in the religions of Egypt, the Norse countries, and various parts of Asia. The Egyptians had a catheaded goddess named Bast (or Bastet). Thousands of cat mummies have been discovered in Egypt, and there were even mouse mummies, presumably to provide food for the cats. Often the cat has been associated with sorcery and witchcraft, and the superstitions regarding cats are innumerable. Throughout the ages, cats have been more cruelly mistreated than perhaps any other animal. Black cats in particular have long been regarded as having occult powers and as being the familiars of witches.
The cat is a familiar figure in nursery rhymes, stories, and proverbs. The English legend of Dick Whittington and his cat is a particular favourite. The writers Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire paid it homage, and in the 20th century Rudyard Kipling, Colette, and T.S. Eliot wrote of cats, and British composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber created the popular stage production Cats.