The remains of a cat which could be 6200 years old have been discovered in Poland. This could mean that cats were present in this part of Europe much earlier than previously thought. Caves in southern Poland were excavated by a team from Nicolaus Copernicus University as they were believed to have once been the site of an early farming settlement. The team are all archaeozoologists and it was expected that they would find some animal remains at the location. However, the discovery of the cat came as a surprise to them all. According to National Geographic, one of the most notable discoveries was a humerus bone that was found to belong to a cat. This bone was found embedded in layers of sediment alongside household items such as ceramic vessels.
When the bone was uncovered it was expected that the dating would show that it was around 2000 years old. This suggests that cats and humans did live side by side a lot earlier than was previously thought. The remains of the cat were believed to have been from the Neolithic era. Neolithic farmers were originally based in an area known as the Fertile Crescent. This was a large area that included parts of Egypt and southern Turkey. Farmers from this era had domesticated some animals including dogs, goats and sheep. These animals would have relied on the farmers for their food and shelter. However, this was not the case for cats who lived close to the settlements, but never really became a part of it.
Magdalena Krajcarz is the lead member of the team and she explained that cats and humans had actually lived in harmony for thousands of years. The Daily Mail reported that cats were viewed as allies by humans because they kept the rodent population under control. They were not domesticated and would not have had a human that they considered to be their owner. However, they were not wild in the strictest sense of the word either as they did tend to stick around the places where humans had settled.
During the Neolithic era some farmers would have migrated northwards and settled in Poland, which is where this excavation was carried out. They would have taken their own animals with them, but it also seems that wildcats followed them when they made this move. This move north would have been made around 6000 years ago and this coincided with the time that the cat was found would have lived. The findings were not proof that cats did live with humans as such, as the bone could have been carried into the cave by a predator. However, it still provides important information in the study of how cats became domesticated. We now know that wildcats were living alongside humans much earlier than previously thought.
Once the researchers got the bones back to the laboratory, they were able to carry out a chemical analysis of these bones, and the other samples from other species that they found. They believed that this would have given them more information about the life of the cat. Isotopes from the bones that were found in the cave were compared to samples from other wildcats in the region. This showed that there were not vast differences in their diets which would suggest that the cat that was found in the cave was not fully domesticated. Although this discovery does not answer all questions about how and when cats first became domesticated in Europe, it does give more clues. The analysis of the bones that were found seem to suggest that the cat was a wildcat. However, it may have been the case the cat was comfortable with getting close enough to humans to have shared the same shelter, or at least ventured into it when nobody else was around.
Cats have always had an important part to play in history. It is well-known how much they were revered by the ancient Egyptians, and the penalties for harming a cat during this period would have been very severe. They worshipped cats as gods and this was something that continued for around 3000 years. The Romans also had a similar attitude. However, as time went on attitudes towards cats began to change. By the middle ages they were almost demonized in many European countries. They were often associated with witchcraft. The population of cats was something that was seen as needing to be kept under control and so often they would have been killed on sight. Some historians believe that the bubonic plague may not have had such a devastating effect throughout Europe if there had been more cats around as this would have meant that there were fewer rats to spread the disease.
The Smithsonian Mag has the opinion that the reason that pet cats are sometimes aloof when it comes to their owners is due to the way they have been treated throughout history. There have been times when cats have been completely shunned by humans and this experience may still be somewhere in their DNA. While it is not known for definite when people began to keep cats as pets, the best estimate so far is that it would have been around the 1600s in Europe. This is something that was likely to have happened by chance as cats and humans simply became more used to living alongside each other. Some cats would have had more docile traits than others which would have encouraged people to take care of them. Today cats are more popular than dogs as pets in the United States, and over 34% of all households have a cat.
Krajcarz believes that the answers to how cats became domesticated are out there somewhere, and that these answers will be uncovered some day. It is something that she will continue to investigate throughout the remainder of her career and these findings only make her more determined to uncover more about the history of cats. This a mystery that dates back thousands of years, but modern science may soon be able to provide answers.