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Planet Earth

99: Egyptians Not the First To Tame House Cats


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Ancient Egyptians typically get the credit for domesticating cats, not to mention giving them an exalted status that remains to this day. But French archaeologists excavating a large Neolithic village in Cyprus reported the discovery of an intact skeleton of a cat carefully buried beside the remains of a human, along with various tools and ceremonial objects. The find dates to about 9,500 years ago—5,000 years before the Egyptians began sculpting likenesses of the slinky creature they called miu.

Several clues point to what Jean-Denis Vigne, a member of the team, called “a strong association between two individuals, a human and a cat.” The two sets of remains were found less than 12 inches apart, positioned symmetrically with their heads facing west. They lay in the same sediment and in the same state of preservation, with no sign that the animal had been butchered. Subsequent examination showed that a small grave had been deliberately dug out and the body of the cat placed in it, then rapidly covered.

In the early agrarian society that flourished in Cyprus, stores of grain were a likely free lunch for mice. Cats may have been attracted to the granaries for the prey. Appreciative humans, Vigne hypothesizes, realized the cats were beneficial company. The Cyprus find suggests that the feline-human relationship went beyond the pragmatic. The valuables found with the human remains indicate a person of considerable status. The cat—Felis silvestris lybica, a form of wildcat somewhat larger than today’s domestic cat—was only eight months old. It may have been sacrificed, says Vigne, to accompany its owner on the journey to the next world.

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