The ancestors of
today's cats first evolved about 45 million years ago, during the late
Eocene era. By 35 million years ago, ancient cats looked and behaved
very much like some members of today's cat family. We're all familiar
with the most ferocious ancient cat: the saber-toothed tiger, with its
frightening fangs. Though re-lated to the saber-tooth, today's domestic
cats descend more directly from another ancestor, an ancient wildcat who
was larger than our felines but smaller than lions, tigers, or panthers.
This ancestral wildcat spread slowly around the world, appearing finally
in every part of the globe except Australia, Madagascar, Antarctica, the
West Indies, and some other islands. By the time the saber-tooth died
out about 100,000 years ago, the rest of the cat family had organized
itself into the three main groups we still recognize today. The
Panthera genus consists of lions, tigers, and other big cats.
Cheetahs have a genus all their own, called Acinonyx, for cats whose
claws do not retract. Small cats make up the genus Felis, encompassing
pumas, lynxes, and other small wildcats, along with their most familiar
descendant, Felis cams catus, the domesticated cat with whom we
happily share our lives today.
Researchers can track the evolu-tion of cats by their colors. The fur of
most ancient cats was prob-ably the shade called "ticked," or agouti.
Today's wildcats often show this coloration, in which each separate hair
is brown or black with a yellow tip. In prehistoric times, a mutation
probably caused dark spots to appear in the fur of some cats, giving
them a camouflage advantage we still recognize in jungle hunters such as
leopards and jaguars. Later, another mutation may have created the
stripes we see on today's tabby cats and tigers. White spots appeared
last of all. For animals who need the ability to hunt undercover in
order to survive, attention-getting patches of white are a major
disadvantage. That's why white spots are common today only in domestic
cats, who have human help to find food and safety. Cat color offers
researchers a way to track the history of domestic cats too. The
blotched tabby pattern, for example, first appeared in England. In the
today, blotched tabby cats are common in areas originally settled by
English colonists. But because blotched tabby cats were unusual in
sixteenth-century Spain, they're relatively rare now in California, the
Southwest, and other areas where the first European settlers were
Maitre de Cologne
Because cats are loners, they probably found it harder to adjust to
domestication than dogs did. Dogs descend from wolves, who are pack
animals, used to living as a group and forming strong social bonds. This
instinct for close association made it relatively easy for wolves to
learn to live with humans, and that's probably why dogs were
domesticated thousands of years before cats were. Cats, being cats, they
kept to themselves until they found a very good reason to give up their
The first cats were domesticated 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, in the Nile
River Valley in Egypt. Members of the species Felis sylvestris libyaca,
also known as the African wildcat, were first drawn to domesticity by
the human shift from nomadic to agrarian living. Once people learned how
to farm, they began to store their harvested crops. Stored food
attracted rodents, and the rodents, in turn, attracted wildcats. As the
cats demonstrated their usefulness by controlling the mouse population,
grateful farmers fed them to encourage them to stick around. Liking the
food and the freedom from danger, the cats chose to stay. Thus began a
long and mutually beneficial relationship. The ancient Egyptians named
these cats miu, a name that tells us that, even in ancient times, cats
spoke the same language that our cats do now!
The first domesticated cats weren't just wildcats who chose to allow
themselves to be tamed. They differed from other wildcats in one crucial
respect: They enjoyed human contact. African wildcats are instinctively
wary of people, and European wildcats are even more difficult to tame.
Wildcats don't learn to snuggle in laps and rub affectionately against
their owners' ankles, as domestic cats do.
One researcher tamed and bred some of today's African wildcats to see if
their kittens would become domesticated when raised with people from
birth. But the wildcats' kittens never lost their fear of humans.
Instead, they cowered when people approached them as fearfully as if
they'd been born in the wild. And if humans insisted on handling or
controlling them, the kittens turned aggressive, spitting, laying back
their ears, and even biting. Another researcher made a similar discovery
when he crossed European wildcats with domestic kitties. The hybrid
kittens couldn't be trusted not to hunt and kill ducks and poultry, and
if they weren't kept in confinement, they promptly disappeared into the
Researchers think that the affectionate, gentle personality of today's
domestic cats began thousands of years ago, with a genetic mutation that
made some African wildcats more adaptable to human companionship.
Through natural selection, these gentler mutant cats gave rise
eventually to today's worldwide legions of purring tabbies, curled up
snug in the laps of their very own humans.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped cats in the cult of Bastet, which began
in about 1000 B.C. and lasted until it was outlawed by Theodosius I in
A.D. 390. Bastet was a goddess with the head of a cat and the body of a
woman, who represented fertility and health as blessings of the Sun.
Domestic cats were sacred to Bastet. At festivals in her honor, attended
each year by as many as half a million people, hundreds of thousands of
cats were sacrificed, mummified, and buried. Mummies examined by today's
archeologists show that the sacrificed animals were usually kittens or
young cats who died of broken necks. Vast cat cemeteries were located in
several Egyptian cities. In 1888, a farmer accidentally dug up one of
the cat burial grounds in the Egyptian city of Beni Hasan. Hundreds of
thousands of mummified cats were exposed. Children played with them or
carried them off to sell to travelers on the Nile, scattering mummy
cloth and bits of bones everywhere. Most of the dug-up cat mummies were
eventually used for fertilizer. Nineteen tons of mummified cat bones
were sent to England to be ground into fertilizer for British farm
fields. From that massive shipment, just one skull remains, now
preserved in the British Museum.
The ancient Egyptians so honored their cats that the punishment for
killing a cat was death. One unfortunate Roman soldier who made the
mistake of hurting a cat was torn limb from limb by outraged Egyptians.
Even when a cat died naturally, everyone in its home had to don full
mourning and shave their eyebrows. While people wailed and lamented, the
cat's body would be rolled in a linen sheet and embalmed with drugs and
Rich people's cats were encased in colored linen, which was folded and
wound in complicated patterns. A cat-faced mask made of papier-mache,
with ears made of the ribs of palm leaves, was placed over the cat's
face, and the resulting mummy was placed in a case made of wood or
plaited straw, sometimes decorated with gold, crystal, and obsidian.
Even kittens were buried in little bronze coffins.
Poor people's cats got simpler treatment, but they were still buried
with honor and ceremony. To feed them in the afterlife, mice and shrews
were mummified and put into tombs alongside mummified pets.
The most honored cats were those who served in temples. Their funerals
were sometimes so elaborate and expensive that special taxes were levied
to pay for them.
Images of cats begin to appear in Egyptian art starting about 2600 B.C.,
but the first definite evidence of domestication turned up in a tomb
dated about 1900 B.C., in which researchers found the bones of seventeen
cats buried with little pots of milk. After about 1600 B.C., cats took
on a more prominent role in Egyptian art, curled up under their owners'
chairs, chewing on bones, playing with one another, and, in what must be
the earliest record of human efforts to confine these independent
wanderers, tied to the leg of a chair with a red ribbon. One painting
shows the mother of Pharaoh Akhnaton at dinner, slipping bits of food to
a kitty under her chair. Another depicts a tabby cat eagerly hunting for
birds in the company of a human hunting party.
Egyptian artists painted cats by the hundreds on the walls of tombs and
on papyrus. They sculpted cats in bronze, gold, stone, and wood, molded
them out of faience, and carved them into ivory. Young Egyptian women
used cat amulets, called utchats, as fertility tokens, praying to have
as many children as the number of kittens shown on the amulet. The word
utchat spread through the world along with cats themselves, eventually
becoming the root for the word cat in English, French, Italian, Russian,
Hindustani, and many other Indo-European languages.
Cats had been domesticated in Egypt for at least a thousand years before
they appeared in the rest of the world. Their spread was slowed by the
Egyptians themselves, who revered felines so deeply that, for centuries,
they prohibited their export. When Egyptian travelers found domesticated
cats living in other countries, they purchased or stole them in order to
bring them home to Egypt, where they believed they belonged. Seeing a
business opportunity in this Egyptian-imposed feline shortage, the
trade-savvy Phoenicians smuggled cats out of Egypt when they could,
selling them to wealthy animal lovers in other countries. Thus, domestic
cats first appeared along established Phoenician trade routes, spreading
later into the rest of the world. Domestic cats arrived in Greece in 500
B.C., in India about 300 B.C., and in China in 200 B.C. It took longer
for cats to make it into Europe. The first domestic cats did not appear
in Italy and Switzerland until the first few centuries after the birth
of Christ. The domestic cat changed as it spread through Europe.
Interbreeding with the European wildcat, Felis sylvestris sylvestris,
made European domestic cats stockier and broader than the lean, elegant
feline that had first emerged in Egypt. We can still see that difference
today by comparing the relatively sturdy European or American shorthair,
a breed with plenty of European wildcat genes, to the leaner breeds that
evolved in Asia or Africa, such as the graceful Abyssinian or the
When Herodotus, the Greek traveler, visited Egypt in the fifth century
B.C., he was so intrigued by the cats he saw that he wrote cat-sighting
reports in his travel journals. Domestic cats must have arrived in
Greece soon thereafter. The first representation of a cat in Greek art
appears in a bas-relief from about 500 B.C., showing a cat on a leash
facing a dog who is also leashed. As cat and dog eye each other, their
owners and a few spectators lean forward, waiting eagerly to see how the
animals will respond to one another—an explosive outcome that today's
cat and dog owners can predict without pause!
The words the ancient Greeks formed for cats still appear in our
language today. Ailouros, the Greek name for cat, turns up in our
words for someone who loves cats—an ailurophile—and for someone who
detests or fears them—an ailurophobe.
Although the 200,000-year-old bones of a jungle cat have been found near
the Thames River in England, no domestic cats lived in Great Britain
until Roman soldiers brought them onto the island. Evidence of cats
first begins to appear in British ruins dating from about the fourth
century A.D. In Silchester, Hampshire, a cat walked across tiles laid
out to dry by an ancient kiln, leaving footprints for archeologists to
find fifteen centuries later.
Remains of another cat were found in ruins from the same period in Kent,
where a fire destroyed an ancient house and trapped a cat in the
Enough of this cat's body remained for researchers to determine that it
was larger than our domesticated cats of today, but smaller than its
mummified Egyptian forebears, with a skull that showed the beginnings of
the foreshortened nose of today's felines.
By the fifth century in Ireland, a cat was included on a list of goods
considered essential for a housewife. And in the ninth century A.D., an
illustration of a cat was included in the famous Irish illuminated
manuscript, The Book of Kells.
The first cats in Great Britain were revered and respected for their
mousing abilities. A cat killer would be severely fined by having to
give over a lamb or a sheep, a substantial penalty in those days. In
Wales in the tenth century, the legal definition of a hamlet consisted
of a place with nine buildings, one herdsman, one plow, one kiln, one
churn, one bull, one cock, and one cat. Welsh law established the value
of cats. Until its eyes opened, a kitten was worth a penny (the value of
a lamb, kid, goose, or hen). When its eyes opened, it was worth two
pennies, and once it began to kill mice, its value escalated to four
pence. When a husband and wife split up, the husband got to keep a
valuable piece of property: the household cat. In the tenth century, one
Welsh king punished a cat killer by requiring him to pay the penalty of
a pile of grain heaped high enough to cover the cat's body, which had
been hung up by its tail so that its nose touched the ground. And in
twelfth-century Saxony, anyone who killed a cat had to pay its owner
sixty bushels of corn.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, he early reverence for cats began to shift
to suspicion, fear, and finally, outright hatred. Pagans worshipped the
Norse goddess Freya, who kept cats around her, used cats to pull her
wagon, and was worshipped with cat rituals. As the Christian Church
grew, it campaigned against witchcraft and barred the worship of pagan
gods and goddesses, including Freya. Friday, the day named after Freya,
became known as the Witches' Sabbath, and her cat companions were
scorned and feared as witch's familiars.
Willem Van Mieris
In the fifteenth century, Pope Innocent VIII ordered all cat worshipers
in Europe to be burned as witches, making cat-related witchcraft
prosecutions common. In seventeenth-century Denmark, a woman was
prosecuted as a witch for allegedly giving birth to a baby with the head
of a cat. Doctors today would recognize a tragic birth defect, but to
the Danes of that time, the baby's strange features were proof that its
mother had consorted with the devil. In 1699, more than 300 children
were prosecuted as witches for keeping pet cats. For this offense,
fifteen of the children were executed, and others were whipped in front
of the church every Sunday for a year. As late as the seventeenth
century, Edward Topsell wrote, "The familiars of Witches do most
ordinarily appeare in the shape of cats, which is an argument that this
beast is dangerous in soule and body."
Historians believe that those who persecuted cats in the Middle Ages may
also have punished themselves too. The widespread mistreatment of cats
caused the feline population to drop by as much as 90 percent from its
previous level. This, in turn, allowed rats to overrun human
settlements. As rats increased, so did their fleas, which may have
contributed to the spread of the dreaded disease that medieval people
called the Black Death.
Today, we know this illness as bubonic plague, and we understand that it
is caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium living on fleas. But medieval
Europeans believed that the Black Death was caused by witchcraft, Satan,
or poisoned wells. In the fourteenth century, bubonic plague swept
through Europe and parts of Asia, killing one-fourth to one-half of the
population. Ironically, the cats whose mistreatment may have contributed
to the plague epidemic may also have helped to bring it to an end.
While the Black Death raged through Europe, people were too distracted
by their own suffering to kill and torment cats. In this climate of
relative safety, cat numbers increased. The cats brought the rat
population under control, which helped to stem the spread of the plague
at last. But those who survived the Black Death failed to show proper
gratitude to the cats who had helped them. Instead, many people went
right back to killing cats again.
While people in Europe were torturing cats, people in the Middle East
and Asia were honoring them. Muslims believed that Mohammed was so fond
of his cat that he cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than awaken his
cat, who was sleeping on it. As long ago as the thirteenth century, a
Muslim sultan directed his heirs to use the earnings from his orchards
to care for the stray cats in his neighborhood.
He ancient Chinese kept cats as good-luck omens. Many Chinese people
still believe that those who are born in the Year of the Cat have
admirable catlike qualities, such as refinement, cleverness, discretion,
and high virtue.
In Japan, the first cats arrived in the tenth century. For hundreds of
years thereafter, only nobles were allowed to own cats, and the lucky
felines were cosseted in every way. At that time, the Japanese name for
pet cats was tama, which means jewel. All cats in Japan were kept on
leashes until 1602, when the government ordered them released, perhaps
to aid in exterminating rodents who threatened the silkworm industry.
Far from being associated with evil, cats in Japanese folklore often
help people or bring good luck. Tourists today can visit a cat cemetery
in Tokyo founded centuries ago. The cemetery's temple facade is
decorated by a procession of cats raising their right forelegs, as if to
bless the felines buried there in honor.
Some of the first domestic cats to emerge in Asia probably developed a
genetic mutation that affected their tails. As a result, strange tails
have been common in Asian cats throughout history. In 1868, Charles
Darwin reported, "Throughout the Malayan Archipelago, Siam, Pegu, and
Burmah, all the cats have truncated tails about half the proper length,
often with a sort of knot at the end." Ascribing tail problems to all
Asian cats may have been an exaggeration. But in 1959, a cat researcher
named A. G. Searle confirmed Darwin's observation in part, noting that
about one-third of the cats in Hong Kong, and twothirds of those in
Malaysia, had kinks in their tails.
The prevalence of tail oddities in Asian cats led scientists to conclude
that the Manx cat, first noticed in England, must have arrived there on
ships originating in Asia. Some Manx, called "rumpies," have no tails at
all, while "stumpies" have only partial tails.
Siamese cats, who also originated in Asia, often have kinks in their
tails. An old legend explains that the purpose of this kink was to allow
princesses to keep their rings safe while bathing. The royal ladies were
said to hang their jewelry on the tails of their Siamese cats, where the
kinks kept the valuables securely in place. A more scientific
explanation holds that the kink is an inherited abnormality of the
caudal vertebrae, caused by the same genetic mutation that altered the
tails of many other Asian cats.
By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European hostility toward
cats was beginning to subside. Slowly, cats began to take their places
once more as valued pets. In mid-seventeenth-century France, Cardinal
Richelieu kept dozens of them at court, and when he died, he provided
for the care of his kitties in his will.
As the eighteenth century began, European princesses and fashionable
French court ladies pampered their pet cats, holding salons to discuss
their virtues, engraving their images on medals, and burying them in
lavish tombs. French artists like Watteau and Fragonard included cats in
paintings of pastoral outdoor scenes, as well as in pictures of ladies'
boudoirs. One French astronomer, Lalande, even added a new constellation
in the shape of a cat, called Felis, to eighteenth-century star charts.
In England, too, domesticated cats began to reappear in stories, poems,
and pictures of happy family life. The painter Stubbs even celebrated a
friendship between a horse and a cat when he included a black stable cat
in his portrait of the famous racehorse, Godolphin. By the nineteenth
century, Queen Victoria's cat, White Heather, was so popular that she
had her own biography. Soon thereafter, the first societies for the
prevention of animal cruelty were established, in part to make sure that
the cruel treatment meted out to cats and other animals during the
Middle Ages would never be socially acceptable again.
As the Industrial Revolution virtually transformed nineteenth-century
England, almost everyone went to work in factories, offices, and
warehouses—including cats, who controlled rodents for many burgeoning
new businesses. In the British Post Office, the rodent-control
contributions of cats were so valued that in 1868, a Cat System was
inaugurated to provide for the comfort and upkeep of all the Post Office
Muriel Beadle, author of The Cat: History, Biology and Behavior, writes
that under the system, the secretary of the Post Office financed the
purchase of cat food by providing each branch office with six or seven
pence per cat. But to make sure the feline employees didn't get so
comfortable that they forgot their jobs, the secretary never provided
quite enough money. He directed that the cats "must depend on the mice
for the remainder of their emoluments." In the tradition of bureaucrats
everywhere, branch managers appealed regularly for higher cat budgetary
allotments. In 1873, one postmaster succeeded when he explained that he
needed extra money not just for the cost of cat food, but also to make
up for "the loss of dignity when carrying the cat's food through the
streets in Her Majesty's uniform." The Post Office cats proved to be so
helpful in controlling Post Office mice that official cats still prowled
British post offices in the 1970s, more than a century after the Cat
System first began.
Otto Van Veen
Throughout history, animals have helped people. Cows give milk, sheep
give wool, horses provide transportation—and cats prove their value to
humanity by hunting. In the late fifteenth century, Conquistador Diego
de Almagro paid 600 pieces of eight for the first domestic cat in South
America, imported to control mice. Frederick the Great, king of Prussia
in the eighteenth century, ordered every town he conquered to pay a levy
of cats, who kept rodents out of his army's stores.
Centuries later, cats came to the rescue one more time as part of the
Marshall Plan, executed by the United States to help rebuild Europe
after World War II. To feed starving people, Ameri-cans shipped hundreds
of thousands of tons of grain into Europe. Borrowing a time-honored
technique from the ancient Egyptians, they sent 10,000 cats along with
the grain to keep it safe from mice. The cats did their part, helping to
keep the grain intact so that hungry Europeans could restore their
strength and begin the long process of rebuilding the war-shattered
In 1964, an epidemic of Bolivian hemorrhagic fever swept through San
Joaquin, a remote settlement in the Andes, caused by wild mice who
carried the Machupo virus. After a radio appeal for help, hundreds of
donated cats were airlifted to the stricken community, bringing the
epidemic to a halt.
The basic body structure and appearance of the cat has changed
surprisingly little through history. People created dog breeds on
purpose, selecting traits like size, aggressiveness, or speed that
suited dogs for particular tasks. But most cat breeds arose
accidentally, as a result of genetic isolation in far-flung parts of the
world. People did not begin to notice or value the different cat breeds,
with their fascinating variety in color, fur length, and temperament,
until Victorian times, when travelers began to bring home some of the
odd-looking cats they encountered in exotic spots.
The shorthaired cats are the oldest European breed, descending from the
first cats distributed through Europe by the Romans. Manx cats first
came from Asia, the Angora from Turkey, the Persian from Asia Minor, the
Siamese from the Far East, and the Abyssinian from Ethiopia. As breeds
like these acquired names and popularity, cat owners began to want to
show them off to one another.
The first cat show was held at the Crystal Palace in London in 1871. In
Europe and North America today, more than 100 different pedigree breeds
have been officially established with standards and registries. But for
all their remarkable differences, cats from the various breeds are all
variations on one theme: the astonishingly beautiful, complex, and
well-loved domestic cat.