The significance of cats in ancient Egypt is well known, but a new archaeological discovery hints that Egyptians may have domesticated them 2,000 years earlier than previously thought.
Archaeologists found the skeletons of four kittens and two adult cats in the wall of a tomb for the wealthy in Hierakonpolis, the capital of Upper Egypt before the age of the pharaohs. Bones of hippos, baboons and other animals were also found in the area, suggesting their use in funeral ceremonies.
Analysis of the cats’ jaws, teeth and growth plates showed that one pair of kittens was about a month older than the other, and therefore had a different mother. The adult skeletons were only about a year old at death.
Egyptian wildcats tend to produce one litter a year. The staggered ages of the cat skeletons suggests that humans kept and fed them year round, so they didn’t have to rely on seasonal food availability to reproduce.
Researchers dated the skeletons to between 3,600 B.C. and 3,800 B.C. and compared them to bones from wild and domestic European cats. The bone size was comparable to the species Felis silvestris, thought to be the ancestor to the modern domesticated housecat, Felis silvestris catus.
The Archaeological Find
Archaeologists previously believed that Egyptians started domesticating felines during the age of the pharaohs, between 2310 B.C. and 1950 B.C., or 2000 years after the recently discovered cats died.
The role of cats during this time period is well documented. Tomb paintings depict cats accompanying their owners on hunting trips, and guarding women at home. Mummified cats, along with milk, mice and rats to nourish them in the afterlife, have been found in tombs in Giza, Abydos, Denderah and Beni Hasan.
Greek historian Diodorus Siculus recorded the embalming rituals used for burying cats, and wrote that anyone who killed a cat intentionally or unintentionally was put to death. Another Greek historian, Heterodotus, wrote of domestic cats jumping into house fires, and owners shaving their eyebrows to mourn their deceased pets.
Despite the importance of cats in ancient Egyptian culture, a few isolated cases trace their domestication back even further than the newly found skeletons. A study from late in 2013 found possible evidence of a Chinese domesticated cat that lived 5,300 years ago. Analysis of its bones showed a diet heavy in grains that humans ate, which would be unusual for a strictly carnivorous wildcat. And in 2004, scientists found a 9,500-year-old burial of a cat and a human side-by-side.
The feline-human relationship could be described as symbiotic, but despite what your librarian friends might tell you, humans can survive without their pet cats. Recent research suggests that cats actually domesticated themselves to gain access to the abundant rats and mice near highly populated areas.