Around 9,500 years ago, a human, a cat and a rich variety of offerings were buried together on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Scientists have now discovered the remains of this burial, believed to be the oldest known evidence of a special friendship between humans and cats.
The findings appear in a Brevia article in the 9 April 2004 issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.
The ancient Egyptians are generally thought to have been the first to domesticate cats, breeding them to produce a distinct new species around 4,000 to 3,900 years ago. Although researchers have long suspected that humans began taming wild cats much earlier, they had limited evidence supporting this idea.
Wild cats probably began to associate with humans as agricultural societies arose in Western Asia during the Early Prepottery Neolithic period (approximately 11,000 to 10,000 years ago).
"It seems that cats probably came more and more frequently into villages where grain stocks attracted numerous mice. I think that human beings rapidly understood that they could use cats for reducing the number of mice," said study author Jean-Denis Vigne of the CNRS-Musum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris.
Though the cat goddess Bastet and other feline deities from ancient Egypt are the best-known examples of cats in ancient mythology, archeologists have also discovered older evidence suggesting a spiritual connection between humans and animals, including cats.
Many stones engraved with images of wild cats and other animals have been discovered from Western Asia and dated back to the Early Neolithic. Vigne believes these artifacts are evidence that animals had spiritual significance for humans, though the exact nature of these relationships isn't clear.
Contact: Christina Smith
American Association for the Advancement of Science