Small size, unobtrusiveness, self-sufficiency and pleasing appearance made a cat one of the most popular pets for a modern man. Every year, millions of dollars are spent on various studies, which aim to learn more about the physiology and psychology of cats. Even more impressive sums are spent on domestic cats by their owners wanting to create comfortable living conditions for their pets. We know almost everything about cats living next to us. But the origin of cats is hidden from people by the dust of centuries. Who were their ancestors? Why the first domesticated cat crossed the threshold of human habitation? Reliable and not yet proved information collected around the world, are like a puzzle unwilling to merge into a single picture.
The first mammals, including predators, were creodonts. About 75 million years ago, this group of animals was very large, and included various types of omnivores and scavengers. About 50 million years ago miacids appeared. These were animals that have more advanced intelligence than their predecessors. Miacids resembled a stoat or a weasel – elongated body and head, short legs, long tail and flexible spine. The history of cats began about 40 million years ago, when the evolution of miacids went two ways. The first group of animals is considered to be the ancestors of all dogs. The representatives of the Viverravines group may have been the ancient ancestors of modern cats. Foss, a unique creature from the island of Madagascar, according to some scholars, is a transitional form between prehistoric representatives and modern cats.
Origin of cats is often associated with proailurus (“the first cat”). This extinct animal was very brisk, fast, flexible – a ruthless hunter. Most of the time it spent on the trees, stepping down from branches only in search of prey. Interestingly, the prehistoric cats have changed little compared with other kinds of animals in the evolution: the brain size increased, the muzzle became shorter and the limbs became slightly longer.
About 140 thousand years ago a steppe cat appeared – one of the subspecies of wild forest cat. Steppe, African or spotted cat still lives in the desert, mountain and steppe regions of Asia, Africa, India, Kazakhstan and Transcaucasia. These are small animals weighing up to 7 kg, with striped coats of sand-grayish color. Origin of domestic cat is associated with its nearest “steppe” relative. Previously it was thought that the ancestors of domestic cats are the representatives of other small cats – like sand or dune cats, European forest cats, and jungle cats. However, recent genetic studies refute this theory.
Why the name “cat”?
Residents of ancient Spain called this animal “gato”, in ancient Russia – “kotka”, Gauls called it “cath”, Germans – “katze”. Consonant pronunciation is traced in many languages, but the origin of the word “cat” remains a mystery. In ancient Latin “cat” sounds like “felis” ("good sign"). From this word derived the modern term of the species – Felis Catus, and the name of Science of cats – felinology. In later Latin the word “felis” was replace with “catus”, formed from “captus” or “captat” (“smart, bringing prey”). It is believed that in many languages the word “cat” came exclusively from Latin.
Domestication of cats led to the fact that these animals have acquired greater significance for humans. In ancient Egypt the word “kadis” was used for holy men and all cats. In ancient Rome, the word “catta” reflected the main role of cats for people – rodent catcher.
Cats and humans
Previously it was thought that the story of the domestic cat origin began in ancient Egypt. Many archaeological finds have confirmed the theory: thousands of mummies, statues of clay, stone, metal and bones found in the territory of ancient Egypt, referred to as 2000 BC. However, not so long ago a group of scientists has refuted this theory, carrying out a large-scale study of domestic DNA worldwide. It turned out that the domestication of cats began at the Fertile Crescent.
The area comprising modern Israel, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and partially Turkey is called the cradle of civilization. The River Nile, Mediterranean Sea, and relatively mild climate coupled with fertile soil there create ideal conditions for a settled lifestyle. It is here that nomadic people decided to stop looking for a better place to live; it is place where first agriculture and animal husbandry appeared. Besides the already domesticated dogs, people began to keep sheep and goats, and finally, about 10 thousand years ago the history of cats’ domestication began. By that time a human has achieved some success in agriculture: now they could not only eat enough, but do stocks. Barns usually mean mice living there. And settlements of rodents usually attract cats. Wild ancestors of modern cats settled closer to men, hunting for overfed rats and mice. People noticed these cat attacks, but let them do it, because domesticated chickens appeared only two thousand years later and cats couldn’t do much harm to the property. In addition, these whiskered hunters destroyed snakes with living on their territory, which also brought substantial benefits to residents.
From the Fertile Crescent first domesticated cats came to Cyprus, where the oldest burial of a man with his cat (7500 BC) was found. The Cradle of Civilization “presented” pet cats to the Ancient Egypt. Some cats were smuggled from Egypt by Phoenicians, who brought these inimitable hunters to Greeks, who couldn’t get rid of rodents using only ferrets and snakes. The origin of the domestic cat in the European countries is similar: they were smuggled and sold for large sums or presented to high-ranking persons. On the island of Foggy Albion these animals got together with Roman conquerors. Ancient finds in Britain is a cat skeleton preserved in the ruins of the house, it refers to the IV century BC. It is believed that the cat came to America with European colonists, but there is evidence that native Americans knew these animals long before colonization.
How cats got to the Russian territory is still a mystery. The oldest remains found in the territory of Kirovograd region and dated II century AC. It is known that in Russia cats were respected and dearly prized, which was confirmed by law. If a person accidentally killed a cat, they had to pay a penalty to the cat owner. Cat corpse was hanged vertically by the tail so that the muzzle touched the ground. The guilty person had to strew corn on the ground as long as the dead cat was fully covered with it. A kitten from a good rodent-catcher was so expensive that sometimes farmers bought one kitten for the whole village.