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Early Origin for the Purrfect Pet

8 April 2004 (All day)
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Out of the bag. Surprising evidence shows the great antiquity of domestic cats.

The purring felines that warm our laps have a longer history as pets than many have thought. A newly discovered cat skeleton unearthed in southern Cyprus has pushed back the date of our first cat companions by more than 5000 years. The complete cat skeleton was next to a 9500-year-old human burial, suggesting that the feline was tame.

“In lieu of finding a bell around its neck, this is about as solid evidence as one can have that cats held a special place in the lives and afterlives of residents of this site,” says zooarchaeologist Melinda Zeder of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who was not involved with the study. Until this find, the oldest evidence of tame cats came from Egypt, where 4000-year-old remains and paintings document cats' place of honor in that culture.

For the past decade Jean-Denis Vigne, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum in Paris, and his colleagues have been analyzing animal bones from an archaeological dig at a town called Shillourokambos in Cyprus. The site had provided detailed evidence of the island's first human residents, Neolithic farmers who arrived as early as 10,000 years ago, probably from Turkey. Over the years Vigne and others had found signs of dogs, cattle, goats, sheep, foxes, pigs, and deer brought by the farmers.

Vigne had also found cat bones, but they provided few clues to the felines' relationship with humans. Then in 2001, a colleague working on the 9500-year-old burial of a 30-year-old human found the remains of a cat. The two sets of bones were less than a half-meter apart, buried at the same depth and in the same sediment, with the same degree of preservation, strongly suggesting that they were buried together, the team reports in the 9 April issue of Science.

The cat bones were articulated, indicating that the animal was intentionally buried with the human, possibly to accompany its owner to the hereafter, says Vigne. He argues that it was very likely a tame cat, because wild animals, when they were buried at all at this time, were represented only by isolated bones. If correct, that interpretation puts cat domestication about 3000 years after dogs became man's best friend and very close to the time that wheat and sheep were domesticated.

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