Cats were domesticated in Egypt 5,700 years ago, according to 2014 study
Despite their stereotypically aloof attitude, cats are so popular today that they have been photographed the world over, are the stars of YouTube videos and have even been provided sanctuary at an archaeological site. When were cats domesticated? According to a 2014 study led by Wim Van Neer of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, cats may have been domesticated in ancient Egypt much earlier than previously thought.
Cats are traditionally believed to have been domesticated in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom (c. 1950 B.C.E.). Famously devoted to these furry creatures—calling them miw onomatopoetically—the Egyptians mummified deceased cats and depicted them in paintings and sculptures. Cats were associated with a number of Egyptian deities, including Bastet, the goddess of fertility and protector of women in childbirth.
Excavations conducted at Hierakonpolis, the capital of Upper Egypt during the Predynastic period, yielded evidence suggesting that cats were tamed as early as the fourth millennium B.C.E. The skeleton of a jungle cat discovered in an elite cemetery dated to c. 3700 B.C.E. showed signs of a healed leg fracture, indicating that the animal was held in captivity and cared for for several weeks before its sacrifice. In another burial, the skeletons of six cats—two adults and four kittens—were uncovered next to contemporaneous burials of baboon and dog skeletons. Using comparative studies of wild and domestic cat skeletons, the researchers propose that the six cats buried together were domestic.
While Van Neer and his colleagues caution that the conclusions from Hierakonpolis are tentative until further comparative studies are conducted, the researchers believe that it is nevertheless evident a “close relationship” existed between cats and humans in Egypt almost two millennia earlier than previously thought.
Read more in The Journal of Archaeological Science.
BAS Library Members: Read “Ancient Life: Cats” as it appeared in Archaeology Odyssey.
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