Cats Snubbed Domestication for Thousands of Years
Did you know that cats have not always been those curious domestic creatures that we are familiar with?
If you were asked to name a species of wild cat, what would you say? You'd likely think of a lion or a cheetah because these cats live at the top of the food chain on the African savanna. TV shows and movies give them all the glory due to their strength, size, and speed. However, there are many species of wild cats that you may not know much about. From these lesser-known, smaller species, we have today's modern house cats.
It should come as no surprise to humans who don't like cats: they snubbed us for thousands of years. Sure, they gladly lived alongside us and ate the rodents that followed us, but they had little interest in being domesticated.
The human/feline relationship.
Before cats were domesticated by humans, humans had as much to fear from cats as they did to be grateful for them. Why? Not all cats are small. When we hear the word 'cat', we tend to think of snuggly little fur balls purring in our laps, possibly marching their claws on our pants. Those tiny little claws, however, have ancient and more deadly beginnings. Lions, jaguars, and tigers are all cats, but it's not likely that you would want to pet one. Before them, humans lived alongside sabretooth tigers that likely ate their children. Perhaps in the human/feline relationship, humans were just as standoffish about domestication.
How did cats enter our lives?
Cats are hunters; some of the best. In the wild, they score some of the highest kill ratios of all hunters. Today's house cats are no different. Have you ever seen one hunt a mouse, tackle a cockroach, or snag a butterfly out of the sky? Their forward-facing eyes, sharp claws, flesh-piercing jaws, and quick reflexes make them extremely skilled hunters. Thousands of years ago, cats saw an opportunity living near humans because humans attracted rodents.
They decided to live nearby, hunt near us, and we tolerated them because they did us a favour: they rid us of our pests. Primarily, it was a mutually-beneficial relationship; they helped us maintain rodent populations, and they reaped the reward of the bounty: an easy meal. They joined us on our travels, climbing aboard boats, and spread as we did; they were our personal pest exterminators. It's not precisely known when cats were first domesticated, but recent studies have given us a clue.
What other animals have been domesticated?
From dogs to horses to chickens, all matter of animals have been domesticated. Unfortunately, the history of cat domestication is fuzzier than that of dogs, horses, or chickens. The recent research into the matter has given us a clue into what the early human/feline relationship looked like. Let's examine that evidence now.
The first known domestic cats
Cats were wary of jumping into our laps. While living alongside us, their genetic makeup changed very little for thousands of years. In essence, they remained wild even though they did not live in the wild.
Though the first known burial site for a cat is dated back to 7,500 BC in Cyprus, the most recent common ancestors of all of today's domestic cats began spreading from Asia to Europe nearly 7,000 years ago. This is a crucial distinction because tameness in animals is much different than domestication, and the buried cats of Cyprus were tame, but not house cats.
Even though those cats weren't yet wholly domesticated, they enjoyed the simple hunting that came inside human territory and felt comfortable enough with humans that they likely formed relationships with them. The evidence of this can be seen in their Neolithic burials. To compare it to an animal today, imagine pigeons in the city. They are relatively comfortable with humans and may even form relationships with some, but they are not domestic animals. They live freely, if not entirely on their own.
What precipitated feline domestication was a combination of translocations and cross breeding between different species. It was a long drawn out process that may not have been intentional. Though the cats didn't mean to domesticate themselves, they were fully aware of why they travelled with humans: food.
The best estimate for the first thoroughly domesticated cats appearing in human history resides in the time of the Ottoman Empire. This evidence stems from a critical phenotypic trait known as the tabby pattern. Up until this time, wild cats were often seen with a mackerel-like pattern on their coats. The tabby pattern, however, arose from the distribution of a recessive allele known as W841X that manifested itself as a blotched pattern, which can be seen on many modern, domestic breeds today. This pattern became prevalent in the 18th Century. At that time, a new species of cat was named: the modern, domestic cat. Within 100 years, people began selecting cats for their physical traits and produced fancier breeds.
In summation, the domestication of cats first arose in the selection of behavioural traits and later became an issue of aesthetics.
When looking at the tiny mouse-hunter that roams your house, snuggles your feet, and sips milk from the saucer, it's hard to imagine that they come from a line of killers. It can be easy to assume that house cats were always house cats due to their playful nature, delightful purring, and calming presence. However, the next time you see Jerry running from Tom, you can be confident you know the cartoon is representing what the original human/feline relationship looked like: cats chasing the mice that survived off the waste and excess of humans.
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