Monday 4 July 2022

Early "domestic cats" were actually tamed wildcats

It is said, with confidence nowadays, that the first domestic cats on the planet existed about 9500 years ago. It all started in an area that we know now as Syria and spread out from there. The skeleton of a wildcat and a man were unearthed on the island of Cyprus. The remains were dated at 9500 years ago.

It is entirely plausible that cats were domesticated before that date perhaps as long ago was 14,000 years in the past. The wild cat on Cyprus had been imported onto that island from Syria by its owner.

This man had a pet cat. But his pet cat was a tame North African wildcat. It's a bit like today when people sometimes like to live with a tame serval. These are not truly domesticated cats. They are simply conditioned to behave in a fairly calm way around people. They are conditioned to live with people in the human environment. But they don't cope very well and they are quite challenging.

This very early 'domestic cat' was in fact a tamed wildcat from north Africa. Picture in the public domain.

I say that because this man living on Cyprus 9500 years ago would have had the same sort of issues with his pet cat. Although, admittedly, the North African wildcat is naturally predisposed towards a pliable character which gets along well with people. In fact, in Africa today there are African wildcats approaching human settlements and becoming somewhat like domestic cats.

But it is quite important to state that the first so-called 'domestic cats' were actually tamed wildcats. The difference is that with a tamed cat you have trained an individual cat to live with a person or persons but they are still in essence a wild cat and therefore their character is going to be somewhat difficult to accept. There might be the occasional aggression from the cat because they are inherently twitchy especially when living in this false environment of the human world.

RELATED: Why did ancient Egyptians shave off their eyebrows to mourn their dead cats?

In contrast, the true domestic cat has developed over thousands of years. They have a lineage. They've either selectively bred themselves or humans have selectively bred them to have a character which is inherently domesticated or predisposed to domestication. In short, domestication is an alteration to the genetic make-up of an animal as opposed to an alteration of their behaviour. The former changes go far deeper than the latter.

An important further note to make is that domestic cats still require socialisation as kittens. If not they are fearful of humans.

It is somewhat ironic that on Cyprus today there are more cats than people. These are going to be community cats largely but there will be domestic and feral cats as well. This problem has occurred because of a lax approach to spaying and neutering of cats so they have been allowed to breed when living in the urban environment. And of course the government has not grasped the problem sufficiently well to resolve it.

RELATED: Why are there so many cats on Cyprus?

It is probably fair to state that Cyprus is a snapshot of what is wrong with the relationship between humans and cats. In the early days cat domestication it worked to a large extent. The first true domestic cats were in ancient Egypt about 4,000 years ago. They were all mackerel/spotted tabbies and slightly larger than today's domestic cat. Although the ancient Egyptians abused domestic cats by breeding them for sacrifice to the gods. That is a clear abuse by modern standards although it is tricky to judge a race of people by modern standards.

But the fact is that the concept of cat domestication is a good one but humans have screwed up and arguably it is been a failure of a process. This is because there are hundreds of millions of feral cats on the planet. They are homeless, they are often miserable, distressed and ill. Their lifespan is shortened. They should be living with people. This must be judged as a failure of humankind in the domestication of the cat.

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