The first evidence of companion cats comes from the island of Cyprus about 7,500 years BCE (Before the Common Era). This island is somewhat unique because even when water levels around the globe changed dramatically a land bridge to any continent never existed on the island. Thus, the only animals that lived on Cyprus came there by either swimming or flying. Given that cats are mostly loathe to swim in salt water, the only way cats got there was on ships, likely Phoenician ones. These ships were quite small, making cat stowaways unlikely.
Cats probably worked aboard ships the same way they did on land, protecting food stores and trading material from rodents and other pests. It also may be true that Phoenician ships delivered the first rodents to Cyprus and then brought the first solutions to the problems they introduced, cats to hunt them!
On an archeological dig on the island, an elaborate burial site was discovered. In it was a male skeleton laying a short distance from a cat. Both had been prepared for burial in the same ceremonial way and were buried with tools, weapons and other implements that indicated that this person came from some wealth and status. This represents the first evidence of connection between cats and people.
Much more profound evidence comes later, about 4000 BCE in Egypt where cats were companions and gods. Both in the elaborate sarcophagus art and in the carvings and informal images created by artists and artisans tasked with creating burial images, cats are often found. Drawings of vagabond cats, collared cats, and cats sitting with or playing with humans were common.
This is also the time when ritual breeding began. Priests raised buildings full of cats and cared for them quite generously until they were about a year old. Radiographs of the mummies show well-fed, healthy cats at the time of their death. They were then killed and elaborately mummified using the same techniques for wealthy humans. Each mummified cat was then sold to worshippers to be used as offering to the temple gods. Millions of cats were raised and sacrificed which may have contributed to the changes in the social nature of felis lybica, our domesticated cats. These cats were raised by humans in large colonies, potentially altering their tolerance for both people and other cats over the generations that this took place.
If you find this intriguing, join us in our OLLI class “The New Cat Science” on Mondays at 1PM.