Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman
The story goes like this: 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, along the Fertile Crescent, people broke away from their nomadic ways, settled down and grew wheat and barley, nuts and fruits. Soon mice came to raid their stores, and wild cats followed to feast on the mice. The farmers and the cats recognized a mutually advantageous situation. Food for the cats and rodent-free homes for the farmers.
And so began the tacit relationship between humans and cats, what scientists call the cats’ self-domestication. They showed up, wild, and made the farm their home, living side by side with the farmers, but independently, probably wandering back and forth between the wild and their adopted homes.
Fast forward 4,000 years on the island of Cyprus. A cat is buried alongside a man. The archaeologists cannot say definitively that this was a domesticated cat. The skeletons of wild cats and tame cats are too similar to be able to make that distinction. But they presume that it was domesticated because wild cats are not part of the ecology of Cyprus, and being an island, the first cats had to have been brought there by boat. The scientists reject the possibility that wild cats made the journeys to the island.
Another 4,000 years later, in Egypt, cats became an object of worship.
Only much later did the cat establish itself as a pet, a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility, as defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.
And here we are. It’s 2018. And cats have become one of the most popular domestic pets in the world. Still independent. Still living side by side with us. Our pet cats are aloof, solitary beings. Unlike our pet dogs, we cannot train them to do our bidding. They do not want to be our companions, nor do they care about pleasing us. And, given the chance, they wander, only to return to their home base and grateful human house mates at day’s end.
When you think about it, these traits are probably not unlike those of their ancient ancestors of 12,000 years ago. Recent studies have shown that our house cats share 96% of their DNA with wild cats such as tigers, which began its evolutionary journey over three million years ago.
Smithsonian Institute archaeologist Melinda Zeder’s comment in a New Yorker magazine article really pinpoints our odd relationship we have with our pet cats:
I think what confuses people about cats is that they still carry some of the more aloof behaviors of their solitary wild progenitors. Sometimes they don’t give a damn about you, but they are very much part of your niche. Cats have us do everything for them. We clean their litter, stroke them, admire them, but unlike dogs they do not have to constantly please and satisfy our needs. They are probably the ultimate domesticate.
As David Zax remarked, “Makes you wonder – who’s domesticating whom?”