A Brief Account of Feline Evolution
It may seem unfathomable to imagine a time when cats weren't an integral part of our lives. Cats sauntered into our existence a mere 10,000 years ago, a blink of an eye in the grand tapestry of life on Earth. Why did it take them so long to become our companions? The straightforward answer lies in their self-sufficiency; cats thrived without our intervention. Then came agriculture, and with it, large-scale grain storage, attracting the notorious freeloaders—mice and rats. Grain lured rodents, and rodents lured cats, who found these creatures delectable. Thus, cats began to establish their presence near human settlements, eventually becoming part of our domestic world.
But who were these initial feline settlers? Clues emerge when considering the birthplace of agriculture, primarily in the Middle East, stretching from modern-day Turkey to Egypt. Here, the African wild cat, Felis libyca, roamed. Slightly larger than contemporary house cats, these wild cats sported yellow fur with subtle stripes and displayed a docile, laid-back nature. Interestingly, modern-day African wild cats still choose to live and hunt near human dwellings. Some argue that Felis libyca is the primary ancestral population of domestic cats, with contributions from other wild cats like Felis silvestris, the European wildcat, and Felis manul, the Pallas or Steppe cat from Asia, introducing darker markings and long-haired coats.
The early domestication of cats is shrouded in ambiguity, with fragments of evidence scattered throughout history. By 6,000 B.C., Anatolian statues (modern Turkey) depicted women playing with domestic cats, suggesting their emergence as common and affectionate pets. Written records from around 4,000 B.C. in Egypt reveal cats' roles as mouse hunters around stored grains, enjoying a golden era as they were revered as the embodiment of the goddess Bastet.
The Romans played a pivotal role in spreading domestic cats northward into central Europe and westward to Britain during their empire's expansion. Cats, recognized as adept hunters, were embraced and even used by the Vikings as both rodent hunters and pets. The Middle Ages, however, marked a dark period for cats, as they were unjustly associated with witchcraft and routinely killed, leading to dire consequences like the Black Death. Over time, the cats' cleanliness and hunting prowess redeemed them, and by the 1600s, the French were even accommodating their feline friends with specially designed doors.
In Asia, cats continued to be revered as hunters and cherished pets. China showcased cats as subjects for art, while in Japan, the iconic Maneki Neko, a sitting cat with a raised and bent paw, symbolized good fortune and adorned businesses to attract prosperity.
The history of cats is a captivating narrative that warrants deeper exploration, fostering an appreciation for the unique personalities and talents of our feline companions.