The principal ancestor of the domestic cat, the wild cat Felis silvestris, is a single species with a worldwide distribution that varies in appearance and behavior across the northern and southern extensions of its range. Behavioral studies suggest that the African/Arabian form of wild cat, F. s. libyca, is the most amenable to forming commensal relationships with humans and habiting their settlements. This behavioral trait, as well as alloenzyme analyses and philological and archaeological evidence, strongly suggests that the libyca form was the direct ancestor of the domestic cat, formally designated F. s. catus.
Cat domestication probably began in Egypt, but because the skeleton of libyca differs little from the domestic form, it is difficult to document the earliest stages of the process. The first purposeful interments of F. s. libyca are found with Egyptian human burials from the early fourth millennium. Although there is no evidence to indicate that these cats were domestic, the burials may signal the beginning of the domestication process. Other wild cats from the region, notably the larger jungle or marsh cat F. chaus, have been identified in early burials as well, but in smaller numbers. This led some authorities to suggest that chaus may also have contributed to the domestic cat genome, but recent genetic studies show that any significant contribution is unlikely. The ancient Egyptians kept wild animals in captivity without domesticating them, and this was probably the case with the jungle cat.
A fifth-dynasty (c. 2494–2345 BCE) tomb painting from Saqqara depicts a cat with a band that may be a collar around its neck. This may demonstrate human control of the animal but is not proof of domestication. However, by the early Middle Kingdom period (c. 2050–1785 BCE), pictorial and textual evidence point to the cat as a domesticate. Both functional and religious reasons are advanced to account for its domestication. As with most domestic animals, however, a primary stimulus, assuming there was one, eludes archaeological detection.
Animals played a prominent role in Egyptian religion from the predynastic period or even earlier. Most deities were associated with one or more animals that were intrinsic to the performance of their cult. Cats, large and small, were sacred to a number of Egyptian gods. The goddess Sekhmet was usually represented by a lioness, the goddess Pakhet by lions and cats. The most popular cat deity, the fertility goddess Bast was portrayed as a lioness from the protodynastic period (c. 3100–1700 BCE) until the Second Intermediate period (c. 1800–1570 BCE) and thereafter mostly as a female cat. In the New Kingdom (sixteenth–twelfth centuries BCE), the solar deity Re is associated with male cats. Cats, and other animals, were kept and raised within the confines of the temples of their special deities.
When Bubastis, a center for the worship of Bast, assumed leadership of the country is the early first millennium BCE, the cat gained new prominence. Prior to this time, cats appear to have been pets of the elite. As the symbol of a national protectress, however, the cat as a pet became extremely popular across all classes.
By the Hellenistic period (c. 332–200 BCE), cats had become big business. Priests raised them by the thousands in and around temple precincts, to be used as votive offerings by pilgrims. Herodotus (2.65–68) described at length the affection of the Egyptian populace for their pet cats and the sacred burial grounds that received their mummified remains. Archaeologists have discovered enormous numbers of cats in cemeteries at Abydos, Giza, Bubastis, and Saqqara, to name a few examples.
Nowhere in the ancient world were cats as beloved or important to religion as in Egypt. Indeed, their religious role may have hindered their export, as it greatly overshadowed the utilitarian role they played in vermin control. Except for Egypt, the domestic cat is not mentioned in the region's ancient texts, and there is no evidence for it beyond Egypt's borders until the first millennium BCE. Its popularity appears to have spread rather slowly, reaching Crete in the ninth century, mainland Greece during the sixth century, and China only in the second century BCE.
In neighboring Syria-Palestine, there is little early evidence for the domestic cat. An ivory statuette from Lachish, dated to about 1700 BCE, may be of a wild or domestic cat. Osteological evidence for cats of all forms is sparse. Several bones of a small wild cat (probably the sand cat, F. margarita) were found in Middle Bronze II levels (c. 1900–1600 BCE) at Tell Jemmeh in Israel's northern Negev desert. Cut marks consistent with skinning reveal that the animals were hunted for their pelts. A small number of bones referred to F. chaus has been recovered at the coastal site of Ashkelon in Israel from various periods, some with cut marks. Not until the Persian period (c. 538/39–332 BCE) do several bones of domestic cat appear. In the ensuing Hellenistic period the numbers began to rise, and about one hundred specimens of domestic cat have been identified to date from Hellenistic to Islamic deposits at Ashkelon. Domestic cat bones, and the occasional skeleton, have been reported from historic-period sites throughout the ancient Near East. The numbers are always small, however, perhaps an indication that dogs, whose bones are much more common, were preferred as pets.
- Armitage, P. L., and Juliet Clutton-Brock. “A Radiological and Histological Investigation into the Mummification of Cats from Ancient Egypt.” Journal of Archaeological Science 8 (1981): 185–196. Important modern evaluation of domestic cat mummies from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century excavations.
- Baldwin, James A. “Notes and Speculations on the Domestication of the Cat in Egypt.” Anthropos 70 (1975): 428–448. A useful survey of the relevant evidence and offers a cogent, if not always demonstrable, timetable of cat domestication.
- Bradshaw, John W. S. The Behaviour of the Domestic Cat. Wallingford, 1992.
- Malek, Jaromir. The Cat in Ancient Egypt. London, 1993. A handsome book with a comprehensive study of cats, domestic and wild.
- Morrison-Scott, T. C. S. “The Mummified Cats of Ancient Egypt.” Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 121 (1952): 861–867. Comprehensive discussion of cat mummies, although some of the conclusions have been superseded by later findings.
- Randi, Ettore, and Bernardino Ragni. “Genetic Variability and Biochemical Systematics of Domestic and Wild Cat Populations (Felis silvestris: Felidae).” Journal of Mammology 72.1 (1991): 79–88. The most up-to-date genetic study of wild and domestic cats.
- Robinson, R. “Cat.” In Evolution of Domestic Animals, edited by Ian L. Mason, pp. 217–225. London, 1984.