Cats have been alongside humans for most of the time we’ve lived in complex societies, but the exact chronology of their domestication is unclear. In fact, researchers are still not entirely sure what species our feline friends came from.
One study found that domestication of cats may have begun as early as 12,000 years agowhile another more recent paper points out two different cat lines which contributed to the domestic cats we have today. One of these lines probably began about 8,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent; the other spread from Egypt to other Mediterranean countries about 3,500 years ago. And an ancient case of kinship with kittens dates back to about 9,500 years ago in Cyprus, where a person was buried with a cat — although it is unclear whether the animal was wild or domesticated.
In any case, cats seem to have spread through many ancient civilizations, often becoming an important part of the lives of the people there. In some cases, cats have even taken on symbolic religious and cultural significance. However, not all cultures treated these domestic relationships equally.
Here are a few examples of the ways ancient people viewed their feline companions.
In Egypt, cats played an important role in the spiritual pantheon. Some ancient Egyptians offered mummified cats and cat figurines to the cat goddess Bastet; many of them come from catteries – businesses that specialize in mummifying and selling various types of dead cats, decorated in various ways – although it is it is not clear how these mummies met their end.
Aside from what may or may not have happened in the kennels, however, many cats lived fairly comfortable lives in Ancient Egypt. As today, animals helped keep pests out of homes (in life and in the afterlife, according to some interpretations of tomb art). The ancient Egyptians also believed cats brought luckthus honoring them with fancy accessories and a rich diet.
In Rome, cats weren’t always the first choice for pets – at least in the early days of the empire. In fact, many people instead had pet weasels or even snakes to keep rodents away from their home. But according to a study in The classic newspaper, more owners started using cats from the second to the fifth century. This is partly because the ancient Romans viewed cats as cleaner than weasels.
Even if cats weren’t always as prized as other pets (the Romans had penance for lap dogs, for example), cats still occupied a prominent part of ancient Roman history. Dozens of tabi are reported today live around Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome, part of the ruins where Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC
Cats figure in some of the most important epics of the Hindu faith, including the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Even the 17th-century story Puss in Boots by Charles Perrault may have originated from an Indian collection of fables dating back more than two millennia. As a domestic animal, cats are not mentioned much in the earlier Vedic literature – but in the period after the fifth century BCE there are more mention of cats as house companions.
Some of the earliest evidence of cats living alongside humans in China dates back 5,300 years. The authors of one study analyzed archaeological and isotopic evidence of cats found at Quanhucun Farm in the northwest of the country. Feline remains there seemingly reveal that the animals did not eat a strictly carnivorous diet (which would be expected for wild cats). In other words, the cats found there were probably located early in the domestication processsay the authors.
However, the issue is far from resolved. Other researchers don’t think this is proof suffice it to say for sure. And other sources claim that domesticated cats in China actually comes from Egyptian or European originmaybe just like 2000 years ago.