Journey From The Wild : Evolution Of The Domestic Cat

The evolution of the domestic cat

The evolution of the domestic cat

Ever wondered just how domestic cats became one of mans best friends? Compared with the dogs domestication an estimated 50,000 years ago, the cats domestication is relatively new – only an estimated 5-8000 years ago! So to learn more about today, we must first look back in history at the relationship between the types of cats. 

Ancestry Of Cats

The members of the cat family Felidae are many and varied, from the small domestic cat all the way up to roaring giant tigers and lions. Scientifically, the can be divided up by genus, which takes into account not the animals size, but rather their anatomy. These genuses can be defined as:

  • Felis – These cats can be defined as small cats, including the domestic cat.
  • Panthera – Roaring cats which includes lions, leopards, tigers and jaguars.
  • Acinonyx – Cats of this genus have non-retractable claws, such as the cheetah.

It is uncertain exactly which wild species of the Felis genus evolved into the domestic wildcat, however many believe that the African Wild Cat could be the closest. Why do people believe this? The African Wild Cat, which is known scientifically as Felis Sylvestris Libyca actually survives in not only Africa, but also Asia and Europe. They have the same number of chromosomes as the domestic cat, and interestingly they are a wild cat with a very sociable temperament. Even as a wild cat, they choose to live close to settlements, another indicator of their attraction and indeed attachment to human society.

African Wild Cat

The Path To Domestication

Farming (also known as agrarian) society came to bear fruit as humans organised their societies. It is thought that one of the main reasons cats were domesticated was the need to disposing of the mice from their fields. Rodents destroying crops would have been a big problem, with no pesticides or herbicides like we have today. It is thought that a genetic evolution took place in which the wild cats became more docile by nature, these genes then spread as cats continued to breed, and so on and so forth. The cats became comfortable living with humans, a safe place to sleep, food, water, and their young were prized as also protectors of their crops. Eventually over time small cats were domesticated in this way.

Cat Sitting In Hay On Farm

Cats in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt was possibly the peak time in history tot have existed as a cat. Domestication he moved beyond mere rodent exterminator, to placing cats as gods. Wall paintings depicted cats as part of life, families would mourn if a cat of heir family household passed away, and it is thought that killing a cat was a mortal sin, punishable by death. Here are some great examples of ancient feline art in Ancient Egypt. On the left is an artists modern impression of what a cat totem would have looked like. The centre picture is of  a cat amongst some hieroglyphics and on the right is a genuine mummified cat from the British Museum.


The cat was a great symbol of fertility with the Bast (also known as Bastet or Pasht) daughter of the great sun god Ra being depicted as a cat. Originally she was depicted as a lion, and later as a smaller domestic cat. The symbol for the cat to the ancient Egyptians meant:

  • Joy
  • Music
  • Dance
  • Health & healing
  • Protection against contagious diseases & evil spirits

Cats in Rome

When the Roman Empire began to expand and take over Europe, they began smuggling cats out of Egypt and across the expanse of the Empire. These cats were used in the fields again to help exterminate rodents from the crops. Happily they were given the same degree of love as respect as they did when they were in Egypt – the people really loved cats. Have a look at this beautiful mosaic from ancient Rome:


Migration of Domestic Cats

With social and infrastructure developments and increasing ease of transport between continents, domesticated cats began to spread throughout the world. Asia and Western Europe began seeing an increase in numbers as they domesticated cats bred and grew in numbers rapidly. In Britain, the earliest cat bones found have been dated by archaeologists to be around 10AD to 43AD.


Cats In The Middle Age

Sadly with the fall of the Roman Empire, the popularity of cats began to wane, and their image began to be associated with a more sinister culture. For hundreds of years it came to pass that cats were associated with the black arts, witchcraft and wizardry. Many cats were sacrificed for these silly suspicious beliefs. Luckily in Britain cats were still valid for their hunting abilities, around the house and in the field. The pelts of many unfortunate kitties we used in fashions of the time as well.


Cats In The Modern Age

From the 1600’s until the 1800’s cats slowly rose again in popularity. Country fairs in the United States and Europe began to feature cats. The first cat show in London was held in 1871 in The Crystal Palace, organised by author and feline artist, Harrison Weir. Pedigree breeds began to be more important to cat enthusiasts and The National Cat Club was founded in 1887, with Weir as the first president.

Local clubs grew in popularity and “cat fancying” as it is known, is popular today with many people loving to show off their pet cats, whilst also maintaining pedigree in many varieties of cat for the future. Felines have become one of mans best friend, companions for love and happiness – and most definitely a valued family member.

Award Winning Pedigree Cat

Image references: (main) greenteabottle, (African cat) Carole Deschuymere, 2012, (Farm cat) OnTheFarm, (Pedigree Cat) Purrinlot.

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