|10 April 2004
Grave discovery is oldest 'pet cat'
The oldest known evidence of people keeping cats as pets may have been discovered by archaeologists. The discovery of a cat buried with what could be its owner in a Neolithic grave on Cyprus suggests domestication of cats had begun 9,500 years ago. It was thought the Egyptians were first to domesticate cats, with the earliest evidence dating to 2,000-1,900 BCE. French researchers writing in Science magazine show that the process actually began much earlier than that.
The evidence comes from Shillourokambos, a Neolithic village inhabited from 8300 BCE on Cyprus. "The cat we found in the grave may have been pre-domesticated - something in between savage and domestic. Alternatively, it's possible it was really domestic," said Professor Jean Guilaine of the CNRS Centre d'Anthropologie in Toulouse, France. "We have this situation of the person and the cat. This same situation of men and dogs are known much earlier from the Natufian culture of Israel which dates to 12-11,000 BCE."
The complete cat skeleton was found about 40 cm from a human burial. The similar states of preservation and positions of the burials in the ground suggest the person and the cat were buried together. The person, who is about 30 years of age, but of unknown sex, was buried with offerings such as polished stone, axes, flint tools and ochre pigment.
Based on this the researchers argue that the person was of high status and may have had a special relationship with cats. Cats might have had religious as well as material significance to the stone age Cypriots, the French archaeologists add. "It's difficult to say the cat was a religious animal but it probably played a role in the symbolic and imaginative world of these people," Prof Guilaine explained.
During the Neolithic, when agriculture was beginning to spread from the Near East, grain storage would have attracted large mice populations. So cats may have been encouraged to settle in villages to control the mice. "If this hypothesis is true, cats could have been attracted into the villages as early as there were mice. These mice in the Near East were present as early as 12,000 years ago," said co-author Dr Jean-Denis Vigne of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.
The human and cat skeletons have identical states of preservation. The skeletons were positioned symmetrically, with both heads pointing west, which may have been intentional. The cat died when it was about eight months old, and while the cause of death is a mystery, there are no signs on the bones that the animal was butchered for food. But burnt cat bones from a similar period at the site, attest to the fact that humans did eat the animals on certain occasions. The cat specimen is large and best resembles the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), rather than present-day domestic cats.
"The first discovery of cat bones on Cyprus showed that humans had brought cats from the mainland, but we couldn't decide if these cats were wild or tame. With this discovery, we can now decide that these cats were linked to humans," Dr Vigne said.
Sources: BBC News, New Scientist, Science, The Guardian, The Scotsman (8 April 2004)
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