How Humans Domesticated Cats (Twice)

Depending on how you feel about cats, the feline situation on the island of Cyprus is either the stuff of a delightful children’s story or a horror film to be avoided at all cost.

Despite being surrounded on all sides by water, the cat population—an estimated 1.5 million—currently outnumbers human residents. The overwhelming majority are feral, though as we learn in the above episode of PBS’ EONS, they, too, can be considered domesticated. Like the other 600,000,000-some living members of Felis Catus on planet Earth—which is to say the type of beast we associate with litterboxes, laser pointers, and Tender Vittles—they are descended from a single subspecies of African wildcat, Felis Silvestris Lybica.

While there’s no single narrative explaining how cats came to dominate Cyprus, the story of their global domestication is not an uncommon one:

An ancient efficiency expert realized that herding cats was a much better use of time than hunting them, and the idea quickly spread to neighboring communities.




Kidding. There’s no such thing as herding cats (though there is a Chicago-based cat circus, whose founder motivates her skateboard-riding, barrel-rolling, high-wire-walking stars with positive reinforcement…)

Instead, cats took a commensal path to domestication, lured by their bellies and celebrated curiosity.

Ol’ Felis (Felix!) Silvestris (Sufferin’ Succotash!Lybica couldn’t help noticing how human settlements boasted generous supplies of food, including large numbers of tasty mice and other rodents attracted by the grain stores.

Her inadvertent human hosts grew to value her pest control capabilities, and cultivated the relationship… or at the very least, refrained from devouring every cat that wandered into camp.

Eventually, things got to the point where one 5600-year-old specimen from northwestern China was revealed to have died with more millet than mouse meat in its system—a pet in both name and popular sentiment.

Chow chow chow.

Interestingly, while today’s house cats’ gene pool leads back to that one sub-species of wild mackerel-tabby, it’s impossible to isolate domestication to a single time and place.

Both archeological evidence and genome analysis support the idea that cats were domesticated both 10,000 years ago in Southwest Asia… and then again in Egypt 6500 years later.

At some point, a human and cat traveled together to Cyprus and the rest is history, an Internet sensation and an if you can’t beat em, join em tourist attraction.

Such high end island hotels as Pissouri’s Columbia Beach Resort and TUI Sensatori Resort Atlantica Aphrodite Hills in Paphos have started catering to the ever-swelling numbers of uninvited, four-legged locals with a robust regimen of healthcare, shelter, and food, served in feline-specific tavernas.

An island charity known as Cat P.A.W.S. (Protecting Animals Without Shelter) appeals to visitors for donations to defray the cost of neutering the massive feral population.

Sometimes they even manage to send a furry Cyprus native off to a new home with a foreign holidaymaker.

Related Content:

An Animated History of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Predator to Sofa Sidekick

Medieval Cats Behaving Badly: Kitties That Left Paw Prints … and Peed … on 15th Century Manuscripts

A New Photo Book Documents the Wonderful Homemade Cat Ladders of Switzerland

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York, The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.


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