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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