Many of us have a cat in our lives, but did you know that humans and cats have actually been living alongside one another for thousands of years? Unlike dogs, who have many different ancestors across most of the world, modern domestic cats all have just one common ancestor - the North African/Southwest Asian wildcat.
African Wildcat image via Britannica
These original wild cats were native to what is known as the Fertile Crescent, which stretches along the Nile in contemporary Egypt and spans across Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and even parts of Turkey. This terrain was incredibly lush compared to it's harsh surroundings, and so many human civilisations settled in this area, as did cats. In fact, this environment was so well suited to the cats that many still live there to this day. It is believed that as far back as 12,000 years ago humans and cats began their relationship in the Fertile Crescent. An agricultural boom in the area led to a larger than usual amount of crops, which attracted more pests that the farmers were used to. In turn, this attracted more cats who hunted the small rodents that were drawn to the crops. The farmers realised how useful the cats were to their practise and so the 2 species developed a mutually beneficial relationship.
It was originally believed that cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt 4,000 years ago, though it is now considered that this is instead where cats became commonplace. Human remains found in Cyprus dating back 9,500 years were found buried with a cat, leading many historians to believe that domestication of cats may have occurred much, much earlier. Ancient Egyptian culture certainly solidified the cats place within society, often considering them to be deities. Towards the end of the Ancient Egyptian empire, cats had managed to travel as far as India and Japan, although in these parts of the world they were owned only by the noble classes. It is thought that they spread through trading with the Roman Empire as well as the Ancient Greeks. They were often used as pest control throughout the Mediterranean, much like their ancestors in the Fertile Crescent.
Larry, Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office. Image via Global Times
Cats were seen as useful companions due to their excellent hunting abilities. During the British and Spanish colonisation of the new world, many ships kept cats in order to protect themselves against pests and the diseases they could spread. This is another way it is believed that cats spread around the world as they were still 'wild' enough to thrive without human interference in the wild. Many 20th Century inventions made the keeping of cats as pets even easier, such as cat litter, fridges, canned food and effective spaying and neutering. Today there are an estimated 1 billion cats in the world, making them a huge part of our lives, from our companions at home to therapy animals to government workers (such as Larry, Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office). Which begs the question; where would we be without cats?