Cats are everywhere! In our homes, on the internet, all over this website. We're obsessed! But how did this cult of cat come to be? We take a look back in time and find out how humans and felines came to adore one another.
The cat flap
A small invention that speaks of thousands of years of history. Before we could refrigerate or can our food, cats needed the freedom to hunt for their own protein-rich diet while living with their fellow humans.
Why did we begin co-existing with cats?
According to a study led by geneticist Carlos Driscoll of the National Cancer Unit, we began our domesticated feline-human relationship approximately10-12,000 years ago in the Middle East, present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. As agriculture developed in the Fertile Crescent, (the large and curved stretch of moist, fertile land) stored food attracted rodents and insects which in turn attracted cats. Farmers noticed the benefits of this hunting ability, forming a mutually beneficial relationship. Driscoll claims "the cats just sort of domesticated themselves. People today know that you can't keep a cat inside [without barriers], and 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent you couldn't just shut the window."
Thanks to the discovery of an ancient burial site in Cyprus, there is evidence suggesting we’ve been living in harmony with cats in Europe since as far back as 9,500 BC. The cats would have been imported intentionally to the Greek Island to live with us. However, even more recent discoveries show evidence of domestic cat-human relationships beginning as early as 130,000 years ago.
The cult of cat
Although once viewed as devil creatures in the Middle Ages, humans have long held the cat in high regard. As we know from Ancient Egyptian tombs and artwork, cats were hailed as sacred creatures and worshipped as such as part of the goddess Bastet cult. So adored were cats that to kill one meant the death penalty. And the Egyptians kept hold of their cats with great jealousy, until eventually cats fever began to spread globally. Phoenician traders exchanged cats for tin in Europe—suffering a rat problem at the time. Monks took their animals with them to the Orient. Roman armies smuggled cats out of Egypt having fallen for their charms and practicalities. Looking at a cat skeleton from the Roman Empire you see the shortened skull of domestic cats we know today.
From here onwards cats became working animals, until something strange happened. Perhaps it was their charms, or maybe they manipulated us into putting them back into a position of worship; cats became largely associated with religion and good luck. They were growing popular alongside Christianity. In India, cats were incorporated into Hindu religious rites. China considered them the bearers of good luck (their arrival in China coincided with Christian religion). In Japan cats were introduced with Buddism, two cats were kept in each temple to guard sacred texts. Eventually replica cats were kept outside to ward off vermin and protect the house. Perhaps most importantly, it was their part in protecting us by destroying vermin during the black plague that propelled the association of felines and good fortune.
From Europe, cats were then reported to join Columbus aboard ships to the Americas with the settlers at Jamestown. Again cats were used for their practical capabilities as ‘mousers’ on ships. This tradition continued in America as late as the early 20th century where cats were employed as mousers by the US Postal Service to keep rodents at bay. By the end of the First World War, cats were to be kept for their company as much as their working ability.
Before cat litter was invented, cat owners used sand, soil, even ash. Businessman Edward Lowe previously old absorbents such as sawdust and then clay to help clear up oil spills. One day he received a shipment of clay, but this clay was from a brand to whom he was not loyal, so it sat in storage. One day one of Ed Lowe’s acquaintances, Kaye Draper, asked him if he knew any good absorbents for pet waste, Ed suggested he give the clay a go. The rest is history.
With the accidental discovery of cat litter in 1947, cats became even more popular pets as the product became widely used in the 1960s. Their cleanliness, independence and affectionate nature makes for a hugely desirable housemate, complete with their own front door. It’s not surprising we have continued our feline-human relationship for so many thousands of years.