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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Cats were not source of food and their relations with ancient Egyptians was more complicated. We can learn a lot on them by examining their mummies:
It is my understanding that the Egyptians initially bred cats as a source of food and then for controlling rodent pests in granaries. I know that there were annual cat festivals at the end of the Nile flooding each season and thousands of cats would be slaughtered and consumed during the course of the celebrations. Large scale midden deposits of cat bones are found at the former venues. Some of the midden deposits are 3 metres high which represents a considerable amount of time.
Over time, the cats took on different attributes (they were bred for tastier fat, softer muscle tissue, faster capture of mice etc). As well, the appearance of the cats developed towards the modern domestic cat.
It is not known if the Egyptians were the first to domesticate cats however. This is purely conjecture from a Euro/Classical Egyptology point of reference. Some researchers believe that cat domestication took place earlier in Central Africa.
They ate mice. Egypt ate grain. Of course they liked cats, and let them hang around. Domestication was the offshoot of that. Evidence will be found eventually, dating to the beginnings of the agrarian Middle East.