Cat Evolution & Domestication

Cat evolution has been going on for a long time… longer than people have been on earth. And when people finally did show up, the cat let us right on in.

Noah may have had cats on the Ark he built for the great flood, but were they the ancestor of what we know as the domestic cat of today’s world? It can be confusing to think that all there is in the world, is all there has ever been in light of so much evidence to the contrary, i.e. fossil discoveries. I think the story of Noah is meant to convey an understanding of greater meaning than one recounting the re-seeding of life after a particularly heavy rain. Scholar’s generally place the deluge sometime in the 2nd and 3rd millennium BC, or some 4 – 5 thousand years ago. That was about the time Egyptians were domesticating the first cats. Did they get on board? And how safe did the rats and mice feel? Were the cats guardians of the food stores on the ark which everyone depended on until dry land was again underfoot? And how did those Koala’s make it to the ship if they were confined to the continent of Australia? Really, the best 5000 years can do is raise a lot of questions.

The great equalizer in any debate is time. Time changes everything, including the diametric of a species. As people spread around the world, their skins changed color, eating habits adapted to new environments, clashes occurred with others also in migration for prized lands that yielded favorable life supporting resources, i.e. abundant prey animals for hunter-gathers, then domesticated stock animals and food/grain plants for sustenance.

Survival is unforgiving of failure. One either survives… or doesn’t. It’s one identifying characteristic of “life” that it yearns to survive. Another survival characteristic is that individual members of a species, don’t, or rather only do so for a limited time. A life-span as we call it. Only large groups or classifications of rocks, trees and other sentient beings, including that of any species can survive for indeterminate times, if it is successful.

Fossil documentation of cat evolution is extremely incomplete. There is evidence tracing the cat to around 200 million years ago, with cat evolution beginning when they diverged from reptiles. From that point scientists have divided the cat family into two major groups. Feline cats which includes all the modern species of cat, and sabre-tooth cats, who are all extinct. The ‘Felidae Family’ or Feline cats are gathered into three Genus:

  • Panthera – Lions and tigers and… panthers, or cats that roar.
  • Felis – Lynx, ocelots, your Fluffy and other small cats.
  • Acinonyx – or the cheetah. They’re in a group of their own because they cannot retract their claws like all other cats.

Originally, cat evolution diagrams had cats divided into two main groups: Big Cats and Small Cats. The distinction was based on the size and shape of their skulls. But, it was discovered that the division was not viable since studies eventually showed a gradual transition of skull characteristics from the smallest to the larger cats. There essentially was no separate distinction using that criteria.

Lately, DNA studies have provided insights to cat evolution as they migrated from Asia to North American via the Bering Sea Land Bridge that appeared around 9 million years ago. These panther like predators had first appeared in Asia about 2 million years before the Land Bridge was exposed by falling sea levels. Cats are considered , next to humans, the most successful of hunters. They would have followed migrating prey and easily survived the challenges of roaming vast territories as they explored new environments. (Think of kitty nosing around an unexplored bush or strange new object, either in or out of her territory) Later, several American lineages of newly evolved cats returned to Asia via the Bridge and with each migration, evolutionary forces morphed these cats into a rainbow of species ranging from lions and leopards to lynxes, ocelots and today’s domestic house cat. Where were people at this time? Well, no where to be found… yet. Anatomically modern humans evolved solely in Africa, between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, according to most experts using deductions based on mitochondrial DNA data. Obviously, cat evolution is long on history with existing in this world.

It was around 10,000 years ago as humans stopped being hunter-gathers and started to cultivate the land, that the relationship seeds between people and cats began. By then cats inhabited most parts of the world except in the Arctic, Antarctica, Australia and inhospitable tundra regions. As the first modern humans migrated from central Africa to Europe and Asia, it would have been impossible for cat and human paths not to cross. But, it was when people began to grow crops that certain species of cats and humans began to have a co-dependent relationship, creating an interesting, if not fateful, twist in cat evolution.

From the beginning the newly evolved farmers found that food storage, especially grain storage, became an attraction for small rodents such as rats and mice. Archeological evidence supports this given that uncovered storage ruins have a preponderance of rodent skeletons entombed within the storage relics. It can easily be surmised that the smaller cats followed their prey to the farms and probably couldn’t resist the banquet concentration of mice and rats these early silos offered. Humans, being a smart creature himself, would have noticed the antipathy that rodents and cats had (have) for each other. An early farmer might have come across a litter of kittens and taken them home to try and raise them for the purpose of protecting his hard work from the fields.

Very likely, the first young kittens would have retained most of their wild nature and maintained a ‘safe’ distance from their human benefactor. But, as generations of kittens had more contact with people, especially being handled by humans as a kitten, they would have grown tolerant to, and amenable with, people to cat interactions, maybe even sleeping in their homes. Speculating this way, the early stages of domestication might have begun. Two species of cats were most successful with adapting to this new relationship, Felis Silvestris and Felis Lybica. Silvestris became more adaptable to the European environments and climate while Lybica preferred the Middle East.

Early Egyptians had multiple deities and these gods were attributed with animal-like qualities. The chief god of Egypt was the sun god Ra, symbolized by a lion. Ra was said to rule the world during the day shining from a sun chariot traveling the sky from dawn to dusk. At night he fell into darkness where he was vulnerable to his enemies. But, having the qualities of a lion he had the vision of a cat who could see in the darkness to better protect himself . Bast was known as the goddess of fertility, birth and family who also was symbolized by a cat. It didn’t escape the Egyptians notice how strong the maternal instinct is in cats when caring for their kittens. Cats were buried with pharaohs and were even accorded cemeteries of their own for common people who had cats in their own care.

It was after the rise of the Roman Empire that cats made their way to Europe as a domesticated animal. Cats also lost their ‘god’ status and took on the more practical role being a ‘pet’. By then the cat-mouse-human triangle was pretty well established, and as humans migrated, cultivating the world as they went, the cat and mouse went right along with them. Domestic cats traveled the Spice Routes to Asia and sailed the seas to the Americas. Everywhere they have gone, cats have established populations not only by inter-breeding among their own kind, but by breeding with indigenous species they met along the way. The result has been a plethora of fur coat colors, hair lengths and coat patterns which identify cats today.

The effects of domestication on cat evolution can be summarized as follows:

  • Period of Competition (prior to 7,000 BC) characterized by wild cats competing with hunter-gatherer humans for birds and small mammals.
  • Period of Commensality (7,000 – 4,000 BC) characterized by ‘semi-domestic’ cats feeding on vermin around and within early villages.
  • Period of Early Domestication (4,000 – 3,000 BC) with the confinement of cats to cult status
  • Period of Full Domestication (3,000 BC – present) the popularization of cat keeping and the diffusion of cats from Egypt*

The close coexistence that cats and people began when cultures started to formulate and we as humans settled down from our hunter-gather wanderings might be conceived as a chance encounter. Our early farming ancestors would have had to solve many problems, the solutions to which today we take for granted. But, the cat hasn’t forgotten their contribution to our success and this might even account for their seemingly proud nature. After all, the interconnectedness of everything in this world is only surpassed by the human arrogance to dismiss such an idea by believing in our own mental superiority, which then only perpetuates a belief in our disconnectedness from nature. Fortunately, only people are capable of such mutterings. Cats have never forgotten their roots. Roots buried deep in cat evolution, domestication and time.

There are moments I find myself, like many others I suspect, lost within the loneliness that results in acknowledging the separateness of being, or distance that seems to be between each of us in this life. It’s then that I only have to look into the sky, marveling at the distance that exists between myself and the infernal ovens that are the stars. Even at that great distance, which is measured in the time it takes light to travel in one year, I am comforted in the knowledge that we are all made of the same stuff that is spilling out from those light factories. We are so interconnected… yet, it is blindly taken for granted as we pursue our inflated activities of living every day. Coming back to this place, my kitty lies on my lap and I stroke her back while she quietly accepts the affection. It doesn’t take much to reverse our roles, and put myself in her place, to even become her back, relishing the stroke of my hand upon it. And, with a little imagination, I can trace the path of cat evolution in my mind.

*Thanks to Feline Advisory Bureau – Wiltshire, UK