While ancient Egyptians might not have been the first to domesticate cats, they could be the reason behind the spread of cats across Europe and Asia.
Ancient Egyptian culture and artwork has shown us time and again how popular and revered cats were in their society. For that reason, it was believed for many years that they must have been the first to domesticate cats. However, in 2004, researchers discovered a 9,500-year-old cat buried with human remains on the island of Cyprus.
This new study shows that while Egyptians were not the first to domesticate cats, they likely lent to the popularity of the domestic cat.
The researchers performed ancient DNA analysis from bone, teeth, skin, and hair samples of 352 ancient cats. The cat remains tested covered Europe, north and east Africa, and southwest Asia. Samples spanned about 9,000 years, going back to before 6,500 BCE all the way up to the twentieth century CE.
The expansion of cats with this lineage is clear when looking at the progression from 400 CE to 1200 CE. The way Egyptians bred cats and developed the human-animal bond could account for this popularity.
Early depictions of cats in ancient Egyptian art often show them in a working setting—hunting rats, for example. But as time went on, those depictions changed to show domesticated cats living near and among people, like the famous depiction of a cat sitting under a woman’s chair from around 1500 BCE.
One other interesting aspect of the study looked at cats’ coat colors to see if human breeding played a hand in how cats looked as they have with dogs. They found that the blotched-tabby pattern does not appear in cats before the Medieval period. This suggests that ancient Egyptians bred cats for personality traits rather than looks.
And, without ancient trade routes and an Egyptian affinity for cats, maybe the domesticated breeds we know today wouldn’t be as widespread as they are.