Origins and Domestication (The Essential Cat)

The Early Mammals

About sixty-five to seventy million years ago, the close of the great age of the dinosaurs was witnessed by a new and rather insignificant sort of animal that, to any observer at the time, might have seemed to bear little promise of success in the evolutionary stakes. These were the first mammals: small, tree-climbing, long-nosed, insect-eating and not very bright. As the millennia passed, these primitive mammals took different pathways of development. Some became herbivores, whereas others preferred to concentrate on a diet of meat, in the form of other animals. There letter, meat-eating mammals, were the earliest ancestors of the cat.

The Evolution Of Creodonts

The first carnivorous mammals, called creodonts, had long bodies, short legs, and clawed feet. Although their brains were very small, they were sufficiently developed to have forty-four teeth for killing and chewing. The creodonts went on to evolve into a whole spectrum of predators, some as big as a wolf or even lion. However, their relatively low intelligence led to a gradual decline which ended in their extinction ten million years ago. Before the creodonts diet out, one of their forms gave rise to another which, although a small, shy forest-dweller, had that important ace card for survival up its sleeve: a much bigger brain. As time passed, all the modern carnivores, including the canids (dogs, wolves, and foxes) and the viverrids (mongooses, genets and civets) evolved from the miacids. It is likely that the car family sprang from the ancient civet species.

Forty million years ago, an animal that was half civet, half cat, called Proailurus, made its entrance. It had long legs and a tail, but unlike true modern cats was a plantigrade (it walked placing all its footbones flat on the ground). Which walked almost as a digitigrade, that is on the tips of its toes. This creature, Pseudoailurus, possessed the dentition of a true cat with "stabbing" canine teeth.

The First "Real" Cats

At last, about twelve million years ago, the first true cats began to stalk the earth, and their fossil remains show that there was soon a wide range of felines to be found. The Tuscany lion, smaller than a modern lion and perhaps more closely related to the leopard, roamed Northern Italy and Central Europe along with lynxes and giant cheetahs. Giant tigers were living in China, and giant jaguars prowled the forests of North America. But there were also smaller species of wild cat like the manual and Martelli’s wild cat. The latter is now extinct, but the manual is still found in parts of Asia.

Martelli’s wild cat lived all over Europe and in parts of the Middle East. It faded out perhaps a little less than one million years ago, but it was arguably the direct ancestor of the modern small wild cats from which domesticated cats were later to be developed. Among its descendants was Felis silvestris, which padded into the picture between six hundred and nine hundred thousand years ago. It spread all over Europe, Asia, and Africa and gave rise to three main types, the Forest wild cat (Felis silvestris), the African wild cat (Felis silvestris lybica), and the Asiatic desert cat (Felis silvestris ornata). It is from the African wild cat, with the Asiatic desert cat perhaps contributing something, that the domestic cat is thought principally to be descended.


As with so many other keystones of human civilization, the domestication of the cat appears to have its origins in the Middle East. African wild cat bones have been found in the cave dung heaps of ancient man. Did he perhaps also rear and tame wild kittens to be companions and to control the pests that threatened his hard-won grain stores? There is evidence that man the hunter admired and envied the hunting skills of the wild cats and perhaps began to venerate the creatures he would dearly have loved to imitate in the skills of the chase.

Certainly, the Ancient Egyptians both employed cats as guardians of grain stores and worshipped them as gods, and it is to Egypt that we can trace the original source of the non-pedigree domesticated cat as we know it.

The Ancient Egyptians revered their cats and went into mourning when they died. The cats were then mummified and taken to the temple of the cat god, Bast. Large numbers of these mummies have survived, enabling modern scientists to identify this first domestic species of cat as Felis lybica.

From Egypt, Phoenician traders took cats into Italy, and from there they spread slowly across Europe. By the tenth century, domestic cats had arrived in England, although they were still rare. The first colonists in their turn took cats with them to the New World.

Longhaired cats probably have an ancestry stemming from countries even father to the east. It is likely that modern Longhairs descended from the wild cats of Iran and Afghanistan, which in turn may have developed from the longhaired manual of Central Asia.

Although cats have been domesticated for at least five thousand years, the concept of selectively breeding cats and producing pedigrees did not catch hold until the mid-nineteenth century. This is in strong contrast with domestic dogs, which have for centuries been selectively bred to perform a wide variety of specific and disparate tasks.