Ancient Cat History

Ancient Cat History Photo Credit: Clipart.com

Humans and cats kept close company in a Chinese village 5,300 years ago.


A new chapter in cat history. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Chinese archaeologists recently excavated the bones of two cats, dating back 5,300 years, from the site of an ancient farming village. Zooarcheologist Fiona Marshall of Washington University in St. Louis worked with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to interpret the findings. Chemical isotopes in the bones showed that the cats were eating rodents, which in turn were eating millet, the grain that the farmers in the village were cultivating.

So it shows us that there was an advantage for the cats, at least initially, but then ultimately, also an advantage for the humans, once they realized cats would help to keep the rodents out of the grain stores.

Unlike the ancient Egyptians a thousand years later, it’s unclear whether these Chinese villagers deliberately fed the cats or kept them in their homes. But it may represent a key transitional step towards their popularity as pets today. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

Cats and humans go back a long way. Art and artifacts from ancient Egypt, dating as far back as 4,000 years ago, show that humans not only kept cats but revered them as sacred, even mummifying them like deceased humans. And 10,000 years ago in Cyprus, a wild cat and a human were buried together, suggesting that humans had some kind of affection for the species.

But in between those two points—the first hint of some affinity between humans and wild cats, and the start of cats being kept and fed much like we do today—there's a big blank space. How did cats go from being wild, predatory animals to domesticated companions? 

This finding may fill in a piece of that puzzle. The cat bones (and bones of other animals found nearby) were analyzed using carbon and nitrogen isotopes—slowly decaying, naturally radioactive trace elements that can indicate the age and origin of a sample. From the isotope evidence, the cats were spending a good deal of time in and around the farming village of Quanhucun. They were eating millet, the primary grain that the farmers produced in Quanhucun, as well as small animals that ate millet themselves, most likely rodents. 

Alongside the isotope evidence, there was physical evidence that the Quanhucun farmers had a rodent problem: an ancient rodent burrow was found in a grain storage pit, while other grain pots appear to have been designed specifically to keep out rodents.

The evidence supports the hypothesis that humans' relationship with cats began as an opportunity for both parties. As human civilization and farming became more sophisticated and centralized, cats may have started hanging around human settlements, where pests like mice and rats made easy and plentiful prey. Once humans noticed that the cats were good for pest control, they may have begun feeding them and allowing them to wander around in their homes, eventually leading to adopting specific cats as personal companions.

It's not clear how far along the relationship was at this point in China. There's no direct evidence that the cats were kept as pets. But the evidence does support that the relationship was at least “commensal”—meaning that humans and cats had begun gravitating toward one another for at least their own benefit.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What evidence suggests that cats deliberately spent time in the farming village of Quanhucun?
  2. What's significant, specifically, about the fact that cats were eating animals that ate the millet?
  3. What does “commensal” mean? How is it different from domestication, like keeping cats as pets?

You may want to check out the December 20, 2013, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Crows that hold grudges, how global warming is creating a new breed of Arctic explorers of the avian variety, and the lengths squirrels will go to to hide their nuts.

Be an Archaeologist is an online interactive that helps you understand the job of an archaeologist.

The Science Updates Ancient Mexican Food and Viking Longhouse also discuss archaeological finds that give insight into human social history.

To learn more about another popular animal companion, see the Science Update Dog Breeds.

Going Further

For Educators

Be an Archaeologist is an online interactive that helps students understand the job of an archaeologist.

The Science Update lessons Ancient Mexican Food and Viking Longhouse also discuss archaeological finds that give insight into human social history.

To learn more about another popular animal companion, see the Science Update lesson Dog Breeds.

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