Cat’s Cradle? New find pushes back origin of tamed felines

Researchers have often given Egyptians living around 4,000 years ago credit for having first domesticated wildcats and then bred the tame felines. However, discoveries on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus indicate that people domesticated felines there by about 9,500 years ago, long before the cat-worshipping Egyptians’ time.

I. Van Den Berg/Animals Animals

HERE, KITTY. The discovery of a 9,500-year-old feline skeleton (above) suggests that some of the earliest domesticated cats resembled today’s African wildcats, such as the one pictured below. K. Debue

Working among the remains of Shillourokambos, a village on Cyprus that was inhabited between 10,300 and 9,000 years ago, a team led by archaeologist Jean-Denis Vigne of the CNRS-National Museum of Natural History in Paris unearthed a cat’s skeleton from a small grave. The animal’s remains lay near a larger grave that contained a human skeleton along with offerings such as polished stones and flint tools. An adjoining pit contained 24 seashells.

Lack of any remaining collagen in the roughly 8-month-old cat’s bones obstructed efforts to estimate its age based on radiocarbon measurements. The creature’s location in previously dated sediment at the site indicates that it lived between 9,500 and 9,200 years ago, Vigne says. Its size resembles that of a modern African wildcat.

In early agricultural villages such as Shillourokambos, wildcats were probably domesticated to kill mice attracted by grain stocks, Vigne theorizes.

Scientists have suspected for some time that people brought either wild or domesticated cats to Cyprus more than 9,000 years ago. A feline jawbone was discovered nearly 20 years ago at a site on the island dating to the ancient time.

It now appears that the first colonizers of Cyprus tamed cats, the French investigators conclude in the April 9 Science. “The association of [a human grave] with both seashells and a cat grave strengthens the idea of a special burial, indicating that a strong relationship existed between cats and people,” Vigne says.

No sign of butchering appears on the cat’s bones, he adds, further suggesting that the animal wasn’t eaten or mutilated but was a pet or had some other special relationship with people. It’s not clear how the cat died, Vigne notes.

The new feline find underscores the emerging view that colonizers of Cyprus propagated a sophisticated culture, remarks archaeologist Alan H. Simmons of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

A recently completed excavation of a 12,000-year-old site on Cyprus, directed by Simmons, shows that residents there hunted pygmy hippos and several other native animal species nearly to extinction within about 2 millennia. Island settlers then brought over a variety of animals from the mainland, Simmons says.

At Shillourokambos and a nearby site from the same period, animal remains include sheep, goats, pigs, wild deer, and even a few cattle.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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