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Whether or not you’re a cat lover, there’s no denying that cats rule the Internet. We can’t get enough of cat memes, tweeting cats and
cats with Instagram accounts. We’re obsessed with Grumpy Cat, Hamilton the
Hipster Cat, Lil Bub and others. Cat videos rack up millions of views, and there are entire film
festivals (yes, plural) devoted to cat videos.
So why this modern fascination with cats?
Actually, it’s not so modern. Consider cats throughout
history, and it’s clear that we’ve always been obsessed with the
For many years, researchers believed that cats first cuddled up to humans in
ancient Egypt, an assumption based largely on the frequent appearance of cats
in Egyptian art and the discovery of carefully mummified cats in both human and
But it turns out that the Egyptians were not the first to cohabitate with cats:
A 2009 article in Scientific American titled The Taming
of the Cat reported that archeologists digging on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in
2004 came across cat bones in a 9,500-year-old burial site. Scientists found a
complete cat skeleton, positioned in a grave next to the bones of a human,
suggesting that the cat was tame and had been buried with its owner. And, because
wild cats are not indigenous to the island, scientists have concluded that the
cats accompanied humans when they settled there.
Cyprus is in the area known as the Fertile Crescent (which includes
Mesopotamia, the land in and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). At this
time in history, humans had evolved from hunters and gatherers into an
agricultural society. This created plenty of feed stores in which cats would
find lots of rodents. According to Scientific
American, scientists believe this may have been the reason wild cats came
out of the woods and began spending time closer to humans.
And even scientists believe it was the cats — not the
humans — who came up with the idea to live together.
“We think what happened is that cats sort of
domesticated themselves,” says Carlos Driscoll, a University of Oxford graduate
student and one of the authors of a recent study published in Science Magazine
that mapped the DNA of wild cats and domestic cats throughout the world to
determine the origin and evolution of today’s house cat.
The relationship between cats and humans wasn’t developing only in the Fertile
Crescent, though. According to 2013 Science
Magazine article When
Cats Became Comrades, scientists found more evidence that cats
and humans were cohabitating across the world earlier than previously believed:
In a 5,000-year-old Chinese farming village, archeologists unearthed feline
bones among other artifacts and, upon analysis, discovered there had been an
unusually high amount of grain in one cat’s diet. Since cats are primarily meat eaters, this suggested the cat was tame
enough for humans to feed it, which seems to be a sure sign the cats were
living among humans. And, writes J.
Wastlhuber in History of Domestic Cats and Cat Breeds, by 1000 B.C., cats
in Egypt were fully domesticated.
The Internet may have changed the way we express our devotion to our cats, but the notion of idealizing them visually is centuries old. Egyptian artifacts and burial sites paint the most
robust picture of a society that loved and appreciated felines — quite literally. In The
Elegance of the Cat: an Illustrated History, writer Tamsin Pickeral
points out that as many as 4,000 years ago, cats were frequent subjects in
Egyptian art and tombs. The works depicted cats both as hunting in the marshes
and also lying beneath chairs, indicating domestication.
And though Internet celebrity may seem like a new twist in the history of cats, our age isn't the first to revere felines: Egyptian cats gradually went from being beloved pets to semisacred animals
dedicated to Bastet, a protective female goddess with the body of a
woman and the head of a cat. The Bastet-worshiping “cult of the cat,” says author Helen Strudwick in The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, reached its height around 950 B.C. Bastet’s festival was one of the
more important and celebrated events in Egypt. Bastet became so much a
part of Egyptian society that images of cats appeared everywhere, incorporated into paintings, statues and jewelry, and appearing on household
items like pots and jars.
But it was not just images of cats that were important to the Egyptians:
Strudwick describes how a person seeking the favor of Bastet could purchase a
sacred cat from the priests of Bastet, who raised cats for this
purpose. The cat was killed (usually by quickly breaking its neck), mummified and placed in a special underground cemetery for cats. The idea was that
the cat would find Bastet upon its arrival in the afterlife and pass along a
message from the human. According to Dr. Bruce Fogle in The New
Encyclopedia of the Cat, archeologists have discovered several of these
underground cemeteries, including one at the temple of Bastet at Beni Hasan,
Egypt, which held more than 300,000 mummified cats.
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