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The taming of the cat

People had pet cats at least 9,500 years ago, long before ancient Egyptians started worshipping felines.

There are black cats, spotted cats, fat cats, and scaredy cats. Now, scientists have found what may be one of the first pet cats ever.

Some of the earliest pet cats may have resembled today's African wildcats, like the one shown here.

Some of the earliest pet cats may have resembled today's African wildcats, like the one shown here.

© Ingrid Van Den Berg/Animals Animals

The pet cat lived about 9,500 years ago on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, near Greece and Turkey. French archaeologists found the cat's skeleton in a small grave in an ancient village called Shillourokambos. People lived there between 10,300 and 9,000 years ago. Nearby, a larger grave held a human skeleton along with objects such as polished stones and flint tools. There was also a pit full of seashells.

Scientists used to think that Egyptians living about 4,000 years ago were the first people to tame cats. The new find suggests that people brought cats to Cyprus much earlier than that.

Other evidence has shown that the inhabitants of Cyprus hunted pygmy hippos and other animals practically to extinction. Then, they brought animals from the mainland, including sheep, goats, pigs, and deer. It looks like cats came along, too, perhaps to control mice.

This 9,500-year-old skeleton of a cat was found in a small grave on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

This 9,500-year-old skeleton of a cat was found in a small grave on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

K. Debue

The cat found in the grave was 8 months old when it died. It had no marks on its bones, meaning that people probably didn't butcher or mutilate it. It's not clear how the cat died.

The discovery says a lot about the people who lived on Cyprus many thousands of years ago. The arrangement of bones and items at the site makes it look like they cared enough about their cats to honor them with a special burial, the researchers say.

With a population of revered cats running around, civilization on Cyprus must have been pretty classy!—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Bower, Bruce. 2004. Cat's cradle? New find pushes back origin of tamed felines. Science News 165(April 10):227-228. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040410/fob2.asp .

Wren, Kathy. 2004. Oldest known evidence of cat taming found in Cyprus, researchers report in Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science news release. April 8. Available at www.aaas.org/news/releases/2004/0408cats.shtml.

You can learn more about the history of the house cat at www.best-cat-art.com/cat-history.html (Best-Cat-Art.com).

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