Early Taming of the Cat in Cyprus

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Science  09 Apr 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5668, pp. 259
DOI: 10.1126/science.1095335

It is generally accepted that cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt (13), at the latest by the 20th to 19th century B.C. (Middle Kingdom, 12th dynasty) (4). However, several finds from Cyprus suggest that the origins of cat taming were earlier. A cat mandible at the early Neolithic site of Khirokitia, Cyprus (2), and, more recently, from several other sites (58), show that cats were present on the island starting from ∼9500 years ago.

Cyprus has remained separated from the mainland by at least 60 to 80 km since its formation (9). There is no evidence of any native felid species (9, 10). Thus, the finds of cat remains are evidence of human introduction. This is not clear evidence of taming, however, because Late Mesolithic or Neolithic societies introduced wild animals to several other islands (1113), and the fox was also introduced to Cyprus at about that time. We have now found a cat buried in association with a human from the site of Shillourokambos, demonstrating that a close relation had developed by ∼9500 years ago.

Shillourokambos was a large Neolithic village inhabited from the end of the 9th to the end of the 8th millennia B.C. (14) (supporting online text). Most buildings are poorly preserved, but numerous ditches, postholes, pits, and wells have yielded tens of thousands of stone artifacts and animal bones. Numerous human burials, some collective, have also been excavated (15). The cat skeleton was located in the same stratigraphic unit and just 40 cm from a human burial (Fig. 1). The human grave contained offerings such as polished stone, axes, ochre, and flint tools and was closely associated with a small pit containing 24 marine shells. The cat skeleton was removed with the surrounding sediment. Examination showed that a small pit or grave had been deliberately dug out, and the body of the cat was placed in it, then rapidly covered. Osteological examination showed that the skeleton was of a roughly 8-month-old cat (Felis silvestris cf. lybica) (supporting online text), but it was not possible to determine the sex. It was not possible to get a radiocarbon date directly from the bones because of the absence of collagen, but the stratigraphic location, the large size of the animal (which is incompatible with post-Neolithic cats), and the state of preservation (which is identical to that of the human skeleton) indicate that the cat skeleton dates to 8300 to 8200 14C years ago [∼9500 to 9200 years before the present (yr B.P.)].

Fig. 1.

(left) Photo and (right) plan showing the burial of the cat (lower skeleton) and the human (above) at Shillourokambos.

If the cat had not been intentionally buried, then the bones would have become disarticulated and dispersed. At the same site, animal remains associated with a collective burial (15) were composed of isolated antlers or bones, but not of any individual. The burial of a complete cat without any signs of butchering reminds us of human burials and emphasizes the animal as an individual. The joint burial could also imply a strong association between two individuals, a human and a cat. In addition, the young cat might have been killed, in order to be buried at the same time as the human.

The rich offerings suggest that the human in the burial had a special social status and, consequently, special relationships with the animals. This burial testifies that the close relationship between human and F. silvestris during the 8th millennium in Cyprus was not restricted to the material benefit of humans but also involved spiritual links.

Cats may have had a special status in the early Neolithic societies of the Middle East, as already suggested by stone or clay figurines found at sites in Syria, Turkey, and Israel. One felid figurine has also been found at Shillourokambos, dating to earlier than the burial (16). Similarly, dogs in Israel are associated with human burials of the Natufian period, dated to 12,500 yr B.P. (17). The Cyprus burial thus likely represents early evidence for the taming of cats. Taming would be expected to arise during the early stages of agriculture, when grain storage attracted large mice populations, identified both in the Middle East (18) and Cyprus (19). Cats may have been encouraged to settle in villages to control the mice. A similar scenario has been proposed for ancient Egypt (3), and the domestic cat is opposed to a rodent in one of the earliest Egyptian pictures (20th to 19th century B.C.) (4).

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