for National Geographic News
Since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians, cats have been cherished as companions, worshipped as idols, and kept as agents of pest control and good luck. But now French archaeologists have found evidence that our close relationship with cats may have begun much earlier.
The carefully interred remains of a human and a cat were found buried with seashells, polished stones, and other decorative artifacts in a 9,500-year-old grave site on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This new find, from the Neolithic village of Shillourokambos, predates early Egyptian art depicting cats by 4,000 years or more.
Jean-Denis Vigne, an archaeologist with the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and colleagues describe the find in tomorrow's edition of the research journal Science. The researchers write that the joint burial indicates a strong association between the human and cat and that the feline is possibly the world's oldest known pet cat.
"The process and timing of cat domestication has been terrifically difficult to document," said Melinder Zeder, a curator of Old World archaeology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and president of the International Council for Archaeozoology.
"In the absence of a collar around its neck, the deliberate interment of this animal with a human makes a strong case that cats had a special place in the daily lives, and in the afterlives, of residents of Shillourokambos," Zeder said.
Most early evidence of cat domestication comes from ancient Egypt. Some experts believe that the Egyptians may have tamed and bred felines to produce a distinct species by the 20th or 19th century B.C.
Cats are frequently represented in Egyptian mythology in the form of the feline goddesses Bastet, Sekhmet, and other deities. Cat art and mummified remains are known from as far back as 4,000 years ago.
But researchers have also stumbled across hints that cats were domesticated much earlier. Experts have found 10,000-year-old engravings and pottery that depict cats dating to the Neolithic period (late Stone Age), Vigne said. He notes such finds provide evidence that, even then, cats had a spiritual significance.
More recently, cat jawbones and other remains not directly linked to human burials have revealed that wild cats were at least associated with early Neolithic settlements on Cyprus, Vigne said.
Cats are not native to Cyprus, an island 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) south of mainland Turkey. Given that fact, researchers behind today's announcement write that humans must have introduced cats to the island. Whether or not early peoples domesticated the species remains unclear, the researchers write, noting that foxes were also introduced at the same time.
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