People often say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But, as every cat owner knows, you can’t teach a cat any tricks (at all). Unless they want to, that is.

Simply put, there is no bossing around a cat. This has led many to assume that humans had nothing to do with the domestication of cats and that, instead, felines domesticated themselves. 

Today science has backed up this claim. Well, partly anyway. After a lot of research and numerous studies, it is now generally believed that felines are, in fact, semi-domesticated.

So, how did cats come to live with humans and become one of the most popular pets in the world?

Let’s dive straight into the intriguing history of humans and cats and find out when and how felines entered our lives. 

What Did the Cat Evolve From?

House cats are members of the Felidae family, as are other big cats, including tigers and panthers, all the way to the extinct saber-toothed cat.

It is believed that all felines come from Pseudaelurus — a prehistoric cat that lived in Asia 9 to 20 million years ago. Genetics tells us that all modern cats diverged from this prehistoric cat in eight main lineages (approximately 37 species). 

Classifying felines has been a bit of a nightmare for taxonomists as most cats have an incredibly similar genetic markup despite the overall development of cat evolution. Even trained experts have a hard time distinguishing between the skulls of a tiger and a lion. 

Now, if scientists have trouble differentiating them, imagine how we, ordinary people, feel. If you’ve ever seen a documentary on wild cats, this fact should come as no surprise. The resemblance between a lion stalking its prey and your kitten eyeing its favorite toy is uncanny. 

When Did House Cats Evolve?

Our common house cats actually originate from the Felis lineage — a group of wild cats that were the last to diverge from the ancient cat (around 3.4 million years ago). The Felis lineage comprises of the smallest cats in the feline family tree, some of which moved back to Asia.

On the other hand, others traveled to Europe and Africa where they evolved and started hanging out with people. Hence how the kitties napping on your couch right now were born.

More specifically, research on the evolution of cats shows that our furry friends are descended from the African wildcat, also called Felis silvestris lybica, or cat of the woods.

There is plenty of evidence to support that domestic cats are direct descendants of the wildcat. 

First and foremost, they look almost completely alike and share similar DNA. Actually, genetics shows that only 13 markers separate the house cat and the wildcat.

Some of those differences are connected to how cats behave towards humans and other animals and how they feel fear. 

Where Did The Cat Evolve From?

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the Ancient Egyptians who first tamed cats. For a long while, the earliest record of cats and humans living together came from Ancient Egyptian artwork and the excavation of many burial sites.

They showed that cats were a part of the Egyptian way of life as early as 4,000 years ago. However, a 2017 study has proven otherwise. 

Sure, they were highly revered and even perceived as deities by this civilization. Still, facts about the domestication of cats show that the actual origin of the house cat lies in the Middle East.

More specifically, in the area known as the Fertile Crescent — land stretching from the Persian Gulf to what is now known as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and parts of northern Egypt.

The study is quite comprehensive. It is based on the research of more than 200 cats, some that are over 9,000 years old. It includes cat remains from Roman times, Egyptian cat mummies, and specimens of the modern-day African wildcat.

How Did Cats Evolve?

The authors of the study believe that wildcats began to gather around farms in this patch of fertile land in the Middle East around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.

It is very likely that they were attracted by the vast number of rats and other rodents that fed on the crops and leftovers of the early farmers. 

Another reason why wildcats would choose the proximity of humans is protection. Despite the evolution of cats, the African wildcat is more or less the same size as our domestic kitties, so it too would have been prey to larger wildlife. 

Experts think that this was the first encounter between felines and humans. Unlike other animals, people did not lock up cats in cages or try to tame them.

Cats sort of domesticated themselves, and it seems that they decided to be friends with us, rather than the other way around. Well, not much has changed in their attitude since then. 

Domestication and Evolution of Cats Timeline

Did farmers start feeding cats on purpose, or did they simply tolerate having them around as mouse killers? Scientists are not sure. They know and have proof that at least three places in the world with a rich supply of grains where people and felines were known to live together. 

Cyprus 

The discovery of the remains of a human and an 8-month-old cat deliberately buried together in a 9,500-year-old grave on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus sheds some new light on the earliest domestication of cats. 

The remains archeologists found show that cats were held in high esteem by the people on this island: the bones were well-preserved, there was no sign of torture on the cat, and both skeletons were placed in close proximity — just 16 inches apart. 

Whether the feline was buried with the human for spiritual reasons or as a treasured companion is unknown.

Still, one thing is for sure: cats are not native to Cyprus. This means that they were brought there by settlers, placing the date of the domestication of cats much earlier than was initially assumed.

China

More remains of domestic-sized cats were found in the Northwest province of China. Carbon dating puts these bones to almost 5,300 years ago when people in the area grew millet, raised pigs, and kept dogs.

Tests on the bones showed that the felines ate a diet rich in millet-based foods, which indicates that the cats either ate the leftovers of the humans or were intentionally fed by them.

Another piece of evidence that favors the cat domestication theory is that one of the felines died of old age. This means that these cats weren’t used for sacrificial purposes but were instead kept as pets. 

However, closer examination of the remains showed that the bones belonged to the leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis, which still lives in China and is a relative of the African wildcat. Since modern cats in China are descendants of Felis lybica, and not the leopard cat, at some point, the former must’ve replaced the latter as the preferred mouse catcher. 

Egypt

Egyptians may not have started the domestication of the cat. Still, research shows that they gave them the personality felines have today. Cats in Ancient Egypt had jobs, just like in Ancient China and the Near East, but they turned into so much more in time.

Egyptian cats are depicted eating fish under the dinner table, wearing expensive jewelry, hunting with people, and being associated with gods. All of which suggests that they weren’t just working animals but highly revered creatures as well.

So not only did the Egyptians pamper cats, but they also contributed to the evolution of house cats by increasing their popularity and prevalence around the world.

Modern 20th Century Cats 

From Egypt, cats traveled the world as protectors against disease, guardians of crops and sacred manuscripts, and rodent catchers on ships and palaces. But there was still a long way to go to get to the pet we know and love today. 

People had lived with cats for thousands of years in Rome, Britain, India, and Japan. However, feline breeding and true domestication of cats in Europe and the rest of the modern world started in the 19th century when people began keeping felines indoors as cuddly companions and not just for their mutually beneficial relationship. 

The final element that sealed the deal and turned felines into pets was the invention of canned food and refrigeration, and of course, the kitty litter in 1947. Without these two developments, it would have been nigh impossible to keep a cat purely as a pet. 

Bottom Line: Are Cats Domesticated or Tamed?

First, we need to distinguish the meaning of both terms. The domestication of animals is a process that uses artificial selection to alter their natural behavior to meet the needs of people.

On the other hand, taming an animal means that it becomes used to the presence of people. Over time (a lot of time, actually), tamed animals can, in fact, be domesticated. 

If we apply these two definitions to cats, it turns out that there’s no such thing as the complete domestication of cats.

They are still wild animals at heart.

They could easily survive outdoors without the help of humans, and they still retain much of the aloofness of big cats. After all, most stray and feral cats survive despite the lack of human assistance.

On the other hand, the life expectancy of a domestic cat is much longer than that of a feral or stray feline (15 and 5 years, respectively), proving that cats do need human help to survive. Or have we simply spoiled them too much?

How Is Domestication of Cats Different Than Dogs?

Although both species have evolved over time, dogs have less in common with their ancestors than cats. Domestic cats and wildcats are practically indistinguishable, except for certain tabby markings, and the wildcat has slightly longer legs.

Wolves and dogs, especially tiny dogs, look like totally different species. Also, cats are known to mate with wildcats more often than dogs do with their ancestors.  

Another point of difference between the domestication of cats and dogs is that cats are more capable of surviving in the wild than canines are. Felines have bigger and better chances of finding food and shelter than dogs because they rely less on humans for their basic needs. 

Blame evolution or human interference, but the fact remains that dogs are more domesticated than cats. Perhaps canines find it easier to obey people because of their pack mentality. They are used to following a leader, whereas cats pretty much do whatever they please. 

FAQ

Are cats evolving?

Like all living things, cats are constantly evolving and changing, however, at a very slow pace.

No matter how big or small, all domestic cats share a common ancestor. This African wildcat started living with people around 4400 B.C. 

Domestic cats and their ancestors are still very much alike. House cats are more tolerant and serene than the wildcat. However, there is still a bit of wilderness left in them, despite thousands of years of natural selection and evolution of cats.

Not much has changed in terms of size, body, and skull shape. In fact, the only thing that truly sets them apart is the tabby coat pattern, which cannot be found on any other feline than the house cat. 

The tabby gene first appeared among cats in the Middle Ages. It originated from modern-day Turkey, the Ottoman Empire at the time, and later spread throughout Europe and Africa.

However, many centuries later, cat aficionados noticed the distinctive markings as something unique and started breeding cats as a result.  

Did cats evolve from reptiles?

Both cats and dogs belong to Carnivora, i.e., all animals with blade-like teeth. Carnivora, in turn, originates from miacids — weasel-like creatures that lived both on land and in trees.

They appeared a few million years after the dinosaurs and lived in Eurasia and North America for about 25 million years. At some point in history, the miacids diverged into separate groups, which later evolved into the cats and dogs that we now have in our homes. 

Why did people domesticate cats?

Did cat domestication start because felines were the only animals on farms that could catch mice?

No. Experts claim that ferrets or dogs would have been more appropriate for the task. Unfortunately for all non-cat people out there, it was probably the feline’s innate tenderness and adorability, combined with their usefulness, that prompted people to accept kitties into their homes.  

In Conclusion

The reason why cats haven’t evolved that much from their ancestor, and why the domestication of cats was not as successful as it was with dogs (for instance), was because they haven’t been changed by people all that much.

Sure, they are more docile and more sociable than wildcats, but house cats nevertheless retain most of their wild nature, which is not always a bad thing. As experts seem to suggest, cats were born to be the perfect pet, so why mess with perfection?

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