Our Long Close Relationship With Cats

Human and CatMany years ago, I spent a couple of months researching cats for a possible book. In many ways, cats are much less interesting than dogs. I don’t mean that in the typical way. I like both cats and dogs equally as species go. But humans have bred dogs to a remarkable degree. So we have ended up with a ridiculous number of dog breeds — ranging in size from the Chihuahua at 5 pounds to the St Bernard, which can reach up to 200 pounds. There is nothing like this in the cat world. In terms of base breeds, there are twice as many for dogs as for cats. But it is more simply that there isn’t that much variation between the breeds. And I have to say, I prefer it that way. I like both dogs and cats as mutts.

I had always thought that the reason for this lack of variety in cats was due to the fact that humans hadn’t really been breeding cats for very long. So I was surprised back in December to read a really interesting article by David Grimm, When Cats Became Comrades. According to genetic studies, humans first domesticated dogs about 15,000 years ago. We first domesticated cats somewhat more recently: 10,000 years ago. This number isn’t at all surprising: this is exactly when the Neolithic Revolution took place. Humans settled down, rodents came around, cats were useful with the rodent population.

There is a certain evolutionary pressure here. More aggressive cats would be chased away. Although interestingly, the domesticated cat is actually a bit bigger than its closest relative, the African wildcat. But over time, it isn’t hard to see how gentle and affectionate cats would get more scraps and so thrive in a way that others wouldn’t.

What’s remarkable is just how fast this happened. According to Grimm:

The oldest record of cats entering human society comes from an early farming village known as Shillourokambos, located on the southern coast of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. In 2001, researchers led by Jean-Denis Vigne, now director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris, discovered the shared grave of a human and feline underneath an ancient home. The skeleton of the animal — dated to 9,500 years ago — was surrounded by carved seashells, indicating that cats held a special status in this society.

Strangely, this is about it for cat archaeology — at least for more than 4,000 years. A recent dig in China uncovered some cat bones from a millet farm that existed 5,300 years ago. As usual with these studies, the scientists were able to extract an amazing amount of information. They know, for example, that the cats were eating rodents and the rodents were eating grain. They even unearthed holes the rodents had dug into the grain stores. But they found even more:

While these animals were protecting crops, villagers may have returned the favor. One of the cats had an unusually high level of grain in its diet. “That’s unexpected because cats are obligate carnivores,” says team member Fiona Marshall, a zooarchaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It suggests that this cat was eating human food.”

The researchers also found a cat that was much older than is normal for wild cats. This is taken to mean that the cats had a close relationship with the farmers. But I’m not convinced that means quite as much as it could appear. The farmers could just have tolerated the cats — thereby providing a food source and protection without any active engagement from the humans. Then again, there could have been lots of petting going on. Regardless, it provides a much clearer picture of our long history with cats. And it is a lot longer than I had thought.

2 thoughts on “Our Long Close Relationship With Cats

  1. That is longer than I thought, as well. I would say dogs might be more interesting because of the variation within the species. However, cats are fascinating in their design, taylor-made to hunt. They also make the best moms and are very affectionate. Think of Scarlett, the hero cat. Cats, for the most part and in my opinion, are more beautiful than dogs, as well.

    Despite what I feel, I think we have a pretty canine-centric country, but I think that is because Americans, generally-speaking, are not very deep, either emotionally or philosophically. But all the cool people (including myself, of course) have a penchant for cats. Dogs will tend to be friendly to lots of people, but cats are the ones who often become attached only to their human companions. That is a very close bond that “dog people” can’t seem to understand.

    Recently my father-in-law adopted a stray cat. He was one who didn’t very much like cats. He is hunter who has an outdoor dog that he, sadly, keeps in a pen most of the time. My father-in-law found this cat outside in the freezing cold in small Idaho town, right outside his house. The cat didn’t look like it was doing well, so my father-in-law brought it inside. Now he and the cat are best buds. It’s a happy story. It takes only one cat to change the mind of a “dog person.”

    • There is no doubt that the country — and the world more generally — is more dog focused than cat focused. But most people like both just fine. Cats seem more independent, which is something I’ve always appreciated. I could have a cat, but I just don’t have the energy to care for the kind of dog that I would want to have.

      I think people are more likely to use dogs to compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy. I’m especially thinking of guys who insist upon having pit bulls that are not castrated. What’s that about? Personally, I’m fond of jack russell terriers because they are like me: small, smart, energetic. But as a result, I don’t think I could ever own one. I did used to care for one when her owner was out of town. I loved her, but she was exhausting. Cats work well for me because they are very clear when they want attention — and it isn’t all the time.

      I understand the evolutionary pressures. So I don’t mind dogs wanting so much attention. And I don’t think that cats are aloof, but I can see why some people would not like their independence. The ultimate animal would probably be a combination of a dog and cat. Of course, there are cats that act more like dogs and vise versa. It’s all very personal.

      What I don’t much understand is why people want to get particular breeds. I can understand general aspects of it. When I talk about jack russell terriers, I don’t necessarily mean the breed: just little, smart, scruffy dogs. Karen sent away for her bull dog, and she’s had all kinds of problems with her. Most recently, the vet had to remove one of her eyes. It’s very sad that breeders do that to dogs. Clearly, Karen would have been better off with a mut. They don’t seem to do that to cats that much. And certainly, most people just want a mutt cat. And I think that is for the best.

      I think if one could potty train rats, they would be the best pets!

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