The history of cats is truly remarkable. Believe it or not, they share 96% of their genes with the tiger, along with traits from every feline in the cat family.
Cats have coexisted with humans for thousands of years. So, how did one of the world’s top predators swap the wilderness for suburbia?
Our fluffy felines have a story to tell — and it’s wilder than you could ever imagine.
Cats’ Wild Beginnings
Cat statistics reveal approximately 95 million domesticated cats in the US, making them the world’s second most popular pets. But to understand how this came about, we need to go way back in history.
Today’s purr ball has cat ancestors known as Felis Silvestris Lybica. They’re sometimes known as African wildcats and are still common in North Africa and Southwest Asia. They’re a little bigger than house cats and don’t have the same color variations. Instead, they mostly come in mackerel-tabby patterns, with stripes that run perpendicular to their spines.
From Wild Predator to Sofa Sidekick — How Did Cats Get Domesticated?
Cats are impossible to train, even if they’re among the most popular cat breeds. Plus, back in ancient times, people didn’t need an animal that stretches in the sun and lounges around the cave. But everything changed with the rise of the Agricultural revolution.
The Neolithic Rodent Hunters
Although felines are domesticated animals, the history of cats suggests that they did so on their own.
Cat domestication dates back to the Fertile Crescent, more than 10,000 years ago, at the dawn of the Neolithic era. Excess grain was kept in huge pits and clay silos as humankind learned to manipulate nature to their will. This drew swarms of rodents, but it wasn’t long until their top predator, Felis Silvestris Lybica, showed up. To save the food, farmers had no choice but to learn how to tolerate cats.
The Sailing Allies & Godlike Creatures
The evolution of cats reveals that these predators became essential sailing companions. After all, the seven seas were plagued by vermin. They gnawed at rope strands while eating the sailors’ supplies.
The Egyptians tamed their native cats around the same time as the Anatolian cats set sail. Egyptians revered cats for their capacity to kill poisonous snakes, capture birds, and destroy vermin. That’s why they immortalized cats via frescoes, hieroglyphs, sculptures, and even mummification alongside the pet owners.
What’s more, the history of cats in Egypt shows that the natives worshipped a cat deity — Bastet. This Egyptian warrior was a goddess resembling a woman with a cat’s head. She symbolized female sexuality, fertility, and motherhood.
The Afterlife Companions & Roman Symbols of Liberty
Egypt isn’t the only country that buried cats with their owners. The oldest domestic cat ever found comes from the ancient Greek island of Cyprus. It was estimated as ceremoniously buried with its owner in 9500 BCE.
The domestication continued in the Roman Empire, but instead of bowing before kittens, Romans used them as a symbol of liberty. As their empire spread across the world, they brought cats along with them.
The Second Domestication
Scientists used to believe that all domestic cats are Felis Catus. But recent discoveries of the early agricultural community of Quanhucun in Central China reveal that farmers there enjoyed cat companionship 5,000 years ago.
Unlike Felis Catus, the history of these cats comes from “leopard cats.” While the Chinese didn’t worship cat deities, evidence shows that they cared for these dotted felines.
During the Sung Dynasty, they cherished cats as symbols of good token and celebrated them in paintings and sculptures. For example, archeologists discovered an ancient cat buried so meticulously that its bones were still intact.
The European Spawns of Satan
Europe began to adopt cats, too. But some nations saw cats quite differently from their Roman contemporaries.
Pope Gregor IX issued an edict accusing black cats of being the spawn of Satan. The lack of cats in the Middle Ages let rodents run wild, resulting in bubonic plague. The rodents infiltrated civilization and killed millions. Eventually, Europeans began to cherish cats in the 17th and 18th centuries and proudly readapted their title as rodent exterminators.
The Mayflower Voyagers & Today’s Modern Companions
As Europeans began their travels to the New World, they carried cats with them. Even the Mayflower had a few cats on its journey. Since the 1600s, cats have slowly been taking over America with their cuteness.
Today, the history of domesticated cats either comes from the Near Eastern or Egyptian lineage of Felis Sirvelis Lybica. But unlike dogs, which have been selectively bred for millennia, current cats are incredibly similar genetically to their ancient ancestors, according to any cat DNA test. The truth is, we’ve done nothing to change their natural habits other than making them friendlier and docile. Today’s cats are essentially the same as they’ve always been — wild, aggressive hunters who don’t view us as their masters.
Famous Historical Cats
The role of cats throughout history began long before they ruled the Internet. And you’ll want to hear some of their stories. Let’s read all about them.
Room 8 — The Classroom Cat
In 1952, a stray cat wandered into Elysian Heights Elementary School in California. He was given the name of the classroom where he was spotted. Room 8 stayed at the school throughout the academic year but always left during summer vacation. Its habit made him very famous, and local television cameras began filming him returning to school every year.
Simon — The War Cat
In 1948, a sailor discovered a stray cat in Hong Kong and sneaked him on board the HMS Amethyst, a Royal Navy sloop. Cat history facts reveal that the ship was attacked and trapped in the Yangtze River for 100 days. Many were killed or injured, including Simon. Despite his injuries, Simon helped the people by killing a rat infestation. The cat received several honors, including the PDSA Dickin Medal for animals in war.
Faith wandered into St. Augustine’s and St.Faith’s Church in London in 1941 with her only child, Panda. She carried Panda to the cold church basement and refused to move out. The chapel was bombed during an airstrike a few days later. And the rector found Faith and Panda in the same basement corner. The history of these cats is well-known worldwide, and Faith was awarded a silver medal by the PDSA for her foresight and bravery.
Trim — The Cat Who Helped Discover Australia
In the late 18th century, people believed Australia was a collection of islands. But one explorer, Matthew Flinders, disagreed and decided to sail around it to prove it’s a continent. When one of the kittens fell overboard but managed to climb back to safety, he instantly became Flinders’ favorite and accompanied him on his voyage around Australia. Today, there are many statues of Matthew with Trim by his side in Australia and the UK.
Félicette — The First Cat in Space
The history of cats leads to space, too. In 1963, a French cat named Felicitte became the first and the only cat to ever travel there. After 15 minutes in space with a speed force six times greater than the speed of sound, she returned to Earth by parachuting down in her space capsule — alive and well.
Stubbs — The Mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska
It was 1997, and the 1000 residents of Talkeetna, Alaska, weren’t thrilled with their mayor. So they all decided to “vote” for Stubbs, an orange cat without a tail. Stubbs was a major tourist attraction, with around 40 visitors per day going to see the Alaskan mayor.
Oskar a.k.a Unsinkable Sam
The history of cats as pets is a heroic one, and Oscar is the proof. He was aboard the German battleship “Bismarck” in 1941 when British forces struck it during World War II. The British rescued and took him to live aboard on “Cassak,” which sank three months later. Oskar was lucky enough to escape a third catastrophe, too — the sinking of the aircraft carrier “Ark Royal.”
Oscar — The Cat Who Sensed Death
The history of cats in America also has a major hero named Oscar. He grew up in the Rehab Center in Rhode Island, reared in a dementia unit. He started going about with the medical personnel, smelling and watching the patients. Then, the staff noticed his unusual ability. When he senses someone’s death, he’d hop on their bed and lay there until they died, usually within four hours. By 2010, Oscar predicted more than 50 deaths.
Cats are aloof but affectionate; serene but savage; tame, but still untrainable.
Despite living with us for thousands of years, cats remain wild animals in many ways. And yet, we adore them.
But if there’s one thing to learn from the history of cats, it’s that we should never underestimate their powers.