The Nature of Cats

No, by the “nature of cats” I don’t mean their temperament or purrsonalities – I mean, where do cats come from, anyhow? You’d think we don’t ask these kinds of questions, but often while we’re staring off out the window at the world beyond for hours on end, this is exactly the kind of thing we ponder. Really, it’s true!
Cat evolutionary tree showing the branches of the felidae familyCats are pretty interesting creatures, it turns out, and have been around for thousands of years. In fact, the earliest evidence of a domesticated cat comes from a place called Cypress, an island many miles away in the Mediterranean Sea. At this place, they found a cat lovingly buried near a human burial, indicating that it was probably a pet or companion of some kind. This was around 8000 BC – almost 10,000 years ago. Can you imagine what a cat’s life must have been like back then? I’m thinking . . . well, maybe not too different from today, except probably the food was a bit different and there probably weren’t many windowsills to sit in, either.

Scientists have classified cats into three different families, although many times they’ve said it’s hard to identify the fossils of ancient cats from one species to the next because they are all so similar. They’ve even had a hard time deciding what ancient animal was the first one to be considered a “cat” in the first place. The basic feline just hasn’t changed a whole lot for millions of years – apparently, we were well-built the first time around! Big cats like lions and tigers are considered “Pantherinae,” while house cats, bobcats, ocelots, and other smaller cats are from the “Felinae” family.  There is also a third family called the “Machairodontinae,” but these huge cats, like the sabre-tooth tiger, are all extinct today. They sure did sound pretty scary, so maybe the humans are better off for that. But all of the  hundreds of cat breeds and varieties that exist today, big and small, share many very similar traits. We like to stay up at night, we like to hunt and eat meat, we groom ourselves very carefully, and we sleep a lot during the day – every kitty from the African lion to your faithful fur-child at home shares many of the same habits. Neat, huh?

Image of the Sphinx in EgyptIt also turns out that most of us originated from the Middle East, in places like Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia. That would certainly explain all of the great statues and reverence for cats that came from these places. Ever seen the Sphinx? Cool statue, huh? It’s depicting ahalf-man, half-cat god. The Egyptians regularly worshipped Bastet and Sekhmet, cat- and lion-headed goddesses, and cats were often mummified and placed in tombs just like people. Later, in Islamic tradition, it is said that the Prophet Muhammad had a favorite cat, Muezza, who one day decided to take a nap on Muhammad’s robe before he had to go to prayer. Rather than disturb little Muezza, Muhammad cut the sleeve from his robe. When he returned from his prayers, Muezza thanked his owner with a gracious bow for being so kind as to let him sleep. Even today, Muslims around the world revere cats. How cool is that?

SekhmetOf course, cats aren’t like many other domesticated animals. They are solitary hunters, don’t usually travel in packs or herds, and they don’t really eat much of anything but meat. Because of this, scientists have always wondered what made cats decide to become domesticated, since really, they never had to rely on humans for much. But, humans do provide some helpful things, like more freely available food, warm places to sleep, and general companionship (i.e., free meals and free pets = ok, you can take me home!). So, most scientists think that cats basically domesticated themselves, choosing to live among humans because of the benefits, but not to the point where they could be selectively bred very easily. It took thousands of years before humans began to be able to breed cats to exhibit certain traits – usually beauty traits like certain colors or hair lengths – whereas dogs and other animals were being bred for special tasks to help humans since the earliest of times. You sure aren’t going to see a cat pulling a sled through the snow anytime soon, that’s for sure (can you imagine?). So, when people say that cats are independent or we do our own thing, that’s because it’s true – there’s scientific proof!So there you are, a short introduction to the history of the cat.

20121228-catster-maneki-neko-legend-heroSo, next time you are watching Fluffy relaxing in the sun or watching the birds outside, just think: she might be doing the exact same things that her ancestors in Egypt or China or Cypress did thousands of years ago!