Any cat owner will tell you that they do not always fully understand what is going on in their cat’s mind. There has always been a lot that we don’t know about cats, which includes how they even became domesticated in the first place. Even today they are very independent animals and you may argue that they are not fully domesticated in the same way as dogs are, for example. A research team from Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland have recently attempted to find some answers to the question of when cats first became domesticated. The research focused on the relationship between cats and humans during the Neolithic Period.
The movements of Near Eastern Wildcats was studied and it was found that these cats may have followed farmers from the Fertile Crescent to Europe. This is a theory that has been in place for some time, but evidence was finally uncovered when the bones of a cat were found in a cave in Poland. TV6 reports that when the farmers first arrived in Poland they would have cut down areas of forest to turn into arable land. They bought animals that were domesticated with them, and this included sheep, cattle and dogs. They may have been unaware that they were also followed by wildcats.
The remains were dated to between 4,200 to 2,300 BCE. The possibility that these bones could be over 6000 years old was the discovery that the team had always wanted to find, as it would have confirmed that Near Eastern Wildcats had migrated into Central Europe. However, they never really dared to believe that this would be the case. The lead researcher on the project was Magdalena Krajcarz. According to Research Gate she is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Archaeology at Nicolaus Copernicus University. She became fascinated with learning more about cats after some bones were found among the remnants of what appeared to be an ancient Celtic ritual in the south of Poland.
When she began trying to find out more about the bones that had been discovered, she quickly realized that there was not a lot of information out there about when cats first started living alongside humans. In order to try and find evidence, she teamed up with other archaeologists and asked to be notified whenever bones that were suspected to belong to a cat were found. This how she first became aware of the bones from the Neolithic Period that were found in the cave in Poland. When they were originally found, she expected them to be no older than 2000 years old and so it was a real surprise when it was discovered they could have been there for up to 6000 years.
The discovery of these bones was really useful because the isotopes in the bones were still stable. This allowed scientists to get an idea of the diet that the cat would have had. They were able to compare these isotopes with the diets of other animals and humans from the same period. They also made a comparison with the European wildcat and cats from Poland that lived during the Roman Period. The theory behind the domestication of cats has always been that it was rats and mice that followed the farmers, and the cats followed the rodents. Cats and humans lived alongside each other with no issues because the cats helped control the rodent population, which benefited the farmers. The researchers were hoping that the information the isotopes provided would be able to provide some confirmation of this theory.
Analysis of the isotopes showed that the stable isotope ratios of the rodents did indicate that their diet had been altered by the agricultural activity of humans. The same level of change wasn’t seen in the cat. This would indicate that cats lived on the periphery of human settlements and did not rely on them for food. This has led them to be described as free-living individuals.
What Do These Findings Show?
Previous studies have shown that interaction between cats and humans began over 10000 years ago. New Scientist explains that cat bones were discovered in Cyprus that dated back 9500 years. The cat must have been taken to the island by the humans, and the way that it was buried suggested that it was a pet. It was found alongside human remains and there was no sign that it had been killed for food. The popular theory was that it had been killed so that it could be buried with its master. The sort of relationship between cats and humans that was seen in Cyprus and Poland is now seen as the starting point of cats becoming domesticated. This process coincided with the development of agricultural villages in the Fertile Crescent, an area of land that incorporated Egypt and southern Turkey. There are five wild cats breeds that all domestic cats on the planet today are descended from.
The information from previous studies, and the revelations from the cat remains that were discovered in Poland, have led researchers that cats and humans would have lived alongside each other comfortably for thousands of years. As farmers migrated through Central Europe, the cats would have followed. The farmers would have not taken any steps to keep the cats away from the settlements because they kept the rodents under control and this would have protected their food supply. Although they now have all of this new information, Krajcarz and her team are still unable to pinpoint exactly when cats first became domesticated in Europe. This will be the next stage in their research. They know that in Ancient Egypt, cats were fully domesticated, and that they were a greatly revered animal. This recent research shows that they were close to becoming domesticated in Central Europe during the Neolithic Period. It is possible that the cats from this period would have gone on to become domesticated, or they could have bred with other European wildcats. The team hope that they will have the answers to these questions very soon.