Considering there are approximately 74 million domesticated cats sharing their lives with humans across the nation, it’s no mystery that America loves felines. But where did they come from, and how did they make their way into our homes?
The cats that roam our living rooms today have ancestors as far back as 4400 B.C. But they haven’t always been domesticated. Until recently, it was unclear how and when felines managed to become such beloved household companions. But a recent study has shed light on this mystery, revealing that cats, despite their independence and attitude of indifference, managed to make themselves indispensable to humans.
A team of researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research and the University Paris Diderot studied the DNA of more than 200 felines from the past 9,000 years, including mummified Egyptian cats and Romanian cat remains. They discovered that cats likely entered human settlements seeking vermin to hunt. This free pest control was convenient for farmers and shop owners, so they continued to tolerate each other in this mutually beneficial relationship – until something changed.
“At some point … cats evolved this more friendly disposition to humans, so they went from pest-control agents to pets,” says Claudio Ottoni, co-author of the paper published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. The study also found that domesticated cats hailed from two distinct eras – once in southwest Asia and Europe during farming practices, and again as trade routes began to open. But the culture truly responsible for domesticating cats is the Egyptians. “Around 5,000 years ago, it was clear that this cat began to be seen as more of a companion than a pest-killer,” says Ottoni. “Egyptian art depicts it sitting on sofas and around tables, clearly as part of the family. As well, Egyptians began to mummify the cats, just as they did humans.” This Egyptian lineage of cats spread into most of the Old World around 1500 B.C, at which point other subspecies had also began making their way from the barn to the household.
Unlike dogs, cats were never selected for specific traits. They were never trained or sought out for their services. The harmonious relationship between humans and felines happened naturally which, according to researchers, might explain why their personalities have remained unchanged over millenniums. They might be more affectionate, but there’s no denying that independence has remained a trait that most modern house cats share – and perhaps that’s why we love them so much!