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Archaeological Evidence Shows Cats May Have Been Pets 9,500 Years Ago - 2004-04-08

A dog may be man's best friend, but new archaeological evidence from Cyprus shows that the human relationship with cats is also very old, in fact, much older than thought. The discovery of a cat burial by French scientists pushes the known date of cats as pets back more than 5,000 years.

The sound of the domesticated cat has been familiar to people for ages. The ancient Egyptians are generally thought to have been the first to tame them, breeding them to produce a distinct new species about 4,000 years ago. But researchers have long suspected that wild cats began associating with humans much earlier, although they had limited evidence.

Now, scientists from the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris have uncovered such clues. Archaeologist Jean-Denis Vigne says he and his colleagues uncovered the remains of a cat burial 9,500 years old on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. A full cat skeleton was found alongside that of a human and a rich variety of offerings, and it showed no signs of butchering. Mr. Vigne says this suggests that people had developed a special relationship with cats by that distant time.

"The tight relationship between human beings and the cat began very early in the Near East, about the eighth millennium B.C. That was much earlier because the earliest evidence was dated to the second millennium B.C., that is to say, six millennia later," he said.

Before Mr. Vigne unearthed the Cyprus burial, there had been other clues of human interest in cats. Many Western Asian stones engraved with images of wild cats and other animals date back more than 7,000 years. In addition, an ancient cat jawbone was discovered on Cyprus in the 1980s, hinting of human domestication. But Mr. Vigne says the Western Asian artifacts do not show how people related to cats, and the jawbone from Cyprus proves only that people had brought cats to the island from the mainland, not that they had tamed them.

He says his discovery of the cat skeleton with the human skeleton is much stronger evidence of taming. However, he is careful to point out humans apparently had not yet bred cats into different species at that time.

"This cat is not morphologically different from the wild cat," explained Mr. Vigne. "But the context of the discovery shows the tight relationship between the man or woman and the cat."

A U.S. expert on animal archaeology agrees. Melinda Zeder of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington says the French discovery on Cyprus is a sign that humans and cats had a special relationship at the dawn of civilization when fixed settlements and agriculture began. In fact, Ms. Zeder says she is surprised there is not more evidence of this from other sites at the same time.

"Once people begin to settle down, they throw away a lot of garbage," she said. "There are a lot of stored foods around that serve as a magnet for a whole bunch of different animals. This is where we feel the process of dog domestication began, with dogs attracted to these human settlements to feed off refuse.

"We certainly know that's what happens with animals like mice and sparrows and so on," she continued. "It would seem, then, that with things like mice and sparrows and so on feeding off human stores of food and refuse, wild cats would be drawn to human settlements."

But to Ms. Zeder, the French archaeologists' discovery is more interesting than just what it says about peoples' bonds with cats. She says that, combined with earlier findings of other animal remains, the Cyprus site demonstrates the stage at which people were beginning to dominate animals in general for their own purposes.

"This site in particular says an awful lot about agricultural development," said Ms. Zeder. "It appears that brought this whole range of animals over to the island, and that includes sheep and goats, cattle, deer, pigs, foxes, and, now it seems, cats. What they seemed to be doing was recreating at least the faunal [animal] environment they had in their homelands from which they emigrated to Cyprus."

Ms. Zeder adds that if humans did bring the cat with them to Cyprus, it could mean that they had tamed it even earlier than 9,500 years ago.