Zeder, the Smithsonian curator, notes that the difficulty in determining precisely when cats were first domesticated is that cats were likely "commensal domesticates." The phrase describes animals like mice, rats, sparrows, and early dogs, among others, that weren't raised by people but nonetheless were attracted to human habitations.
Such animals feed on stored food or trash or they prey on other commensals. Which is why finding cat remains in or near ancient human settlements doesn't necessarily imply the animals had been adopted as pets.
To complicate the issue, domestic cats are physically very similar to their wild counterparts and cannot easily be distinguished on that basis, said Zeder, who also serves on the board of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration.
"What makes this [new] find special, is [the cat's] intentional placement with a human burial," Zeder said.
The cat and human remains described in today's announcement were unearthed in 2001. The grave also contained offerings such as ochre and flint tools, axes, and seashells.
A combination of factors is seen as evidence that the cat and human were intentionally buried together including the good state of preservation of both remains, the burial of an entire cat without any signs of butchering, and the proximity of the skeletonsjust 40 centimeters (16 inches) apart. Analysis suggests that the cat was just eight months old at death and was possibly killed in order to be buried alongside the human.
"The first discovery of cat bones on Cyprus showed that human beings brought cats from the mainland to the islands. But we couldn't decide if these cats were wild or tame," said study author Vigne. "With this discovery, we can now decide that cats were linked with humans."
He notes that wild cats may have been drawn to settlements where grain stores attracted rats and mice. Perhaps people soon realized they could perhaps use the felines to control these pests.
Cats may have been one of many animals "intentionally transported to Cyprus as some kind of gamestocking plan," Zeder said, noting that the research by Vigne and his colleagues reveals that many non-native wild animalsincluding pigs, goats, deer, and cattlewere transported to Cyprus "on a kind of Noah's ark."
The scientists' findings also reveal that the residents of the ancient village of Shillourokambos were beginning domestication experiments with many such livestock species.
"[Perhaps] it's not surprising to find evidence of taming cats and their habituation with human settlements at such an early date," Zeder added. "What's really surprising is that we haven't seen more of this kind of association at an earlier time."
In contrast to cats, intentional burials of dogs and puppies with humans occurred earlier and have been more common in the archaeological record. The earliest are known from the Natufian stage, 12,000 years ago in Israel.
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