Cat History and Domestication - A Commensal Relationship

Is Your Cat Truly Domesticated? According to Science....

Wildcat Felis silvestris
Three European Wildcat Kittens in Germany (Felis silvestris). Raimund Linke / Getty Images

The modern cat (Felis silvestris catus) was domesticated from one of five separate wild cats: the Sardinian wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), the European wildcat (F. s. silvestris), the Central Asian wildcat (F.s. ornata), the sub-Saharan African wildcat (F.s. cafra) and the Chinese desert cat (F.s. bieti). Each of these species is a distinctive subspecies of F. silvestris. Genetic analysis suggests that all domestic cats derive from at least five founder cats from the Fertile Crescent region, from where they (or rather their descendants) were transported around the world.

How do you Make a Domestic Cat?

There are two difficulties inherent in determining when and how the cat was domesticated: one is that domesticated cats can and do interbreed with their feral cousins; the other is that the primary indicator of cat domestication is their sociability or docility, traits not easily identified in the archaeological record.

Instead, archaeologists rely on the relatively small size of cats (compared to feral cats), by their presence outside of their normal range, if they are given burials or have collars or the like, and if they have established a commensal relationship.

Commensal Relationships

Commensal behavior is the scientific name for "hanging around with humans": the word "commensal" comes from "com" meaning sharing and "mensa" meaning table. As applied to different animal species, true commensals live entirely in houses with us, occasional commensals move between houses and outdoor habitats, and obligate commensals are those that can only survive in an area because of their ability to occupy houses (such as black rats in northern Europe).

Not all commensal relationships are friendly ones: some consume crops, steal food, or harbor disease. Further, commensal does not necessarily mean "invited in": microscopic pathogens and bacteria, insects, and rats have commensal relationships with humans.

Cat History and Archaeology

The oldest archaeological evidence for cats living with humans is from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where several animal species including cats were introduced by 7500 BC.

The earliest known purposeful cat burial is at the Neolithic site of Shillourokambos, a cat buried next to a human between 9500-9200 years ago. The archaeological deposits of Shillourokambos also included the sculpted head of what looks like a combined human-cat being.

Female figurines found in the 6th millennium BC site of Haçilar, Turkey, were carved carrying cats or catlike figures in their arms. There is some debate about the identification of these creatures as cats. Haçilar is well outside the normal distribution of F. s. lybica.

The first unquestionable evidence of cats smaller in size than the wildcat is in Mesopotamia during the Uruk period (5500-5000 calendar years ago [cal BP]) at the site of Tell Sheikh Hassan.

Cats in Egypt

Up until very recently, most sources believed that domesticated cats became widespread only after the Egyptian civilization took its part in the process. Several strands of data indicate that cats were present in Egypt as early as the predynastic period, nearly 6,000 years ago. A cat skeleton discovered in a predynastic tomb (ca. 3700 BC) at Hierakonpolis may be evidence for commensality. The cat, apparently a young male, had a broken left humerus and right femur, both of which had healed prior to the cat's death and burial.

Reanalysis of this cat has identified the species as Felis chaus, not F. silvestris, however.

Continued excavations at the same cemetery at Hierakonpolis (Van Neer and colleagues) have found a simultaneous burial of six cats, an adult male and female and four kittens belonging to two different litters. The adults are F. silvestris and fall within or near the size ranges for domesticated cats. They were buried during the Naqada IC-IIB period (c. 5800–5600 cal BP).

The first illustration of a cat with a collar appears on an Egyptian tomb in Saqqara, dated to the 5th dynasty (Old Kingdom, ca 2500-2350 BC). By the 12th dynasty (Middle Kingdom, ca 1976-1793 BC), cats are definitely domesticated, and the animals appear frequently in Egyptian art paintings and as mummies. Cats are the most frequently mummified animal in Egypt.


The feline goddesses Mafdet, Mehit, and Bastet all appear in the Egyptian pantheon by the Early Dynastic period (although Bastet is not associated with domesticated cats until later). Genetic evidence from Late Period (664-332 BC) cat mummies (Kurushima et al) suggest that cats may have been domesticated in Egypt perhaps as early as Predynastic or Early Dynastic periods.

Cats in China

In 2014, Hu et al. reported evidence for early cat-human interactions during the Middle-Late Yangshao (early Neolithic, 7,000-5,000 cal BP) levels at the site of Quanhucun, in Shaanxi province, China. Eight Felis silvestris cat bones were recovered from three ashy pits containing animal bones, pottery sherds, bone and stone tools. Two of the cat jaw bones were radiocarbon dated between 5560-5280 cal BP. The size range of these cats falls within modern domesticated cats. Stable isotope analysis of the bones suggests their diet included meat but also a significant amount of grain, perhaps foxtail millet () or broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum). That may have been consumed directly by the cats, or indirectly by their consumption of millet-eating rodents (Chinese zokor, Myospalax sp.), also present at the site).

Hu et al. suggested it was the draw of commensal rodents at the village feeding on the millet stores that made the cats attractive partners. The existence of F. silvestris in Neolithic China supports growing evidence of complex trade and exchange routes connecting western Asia to northern China perhaps as long ago as 5,000 years.

The archaeological site of Wuzhuangguoliang contained a nearly complete felid skeleton laid on its left side and dated to 5267-4871 cal BP; and a third site, Xiawanggang, contained cat bones as well. All of these cats were identified as F. silvestris. However, Vigne et al. (2016) examined the evidence and identified all the Chinese Neolithic cats as those of the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). Vigne et al. suggest that the leopard cat became a commensal species beginning in the mid-sixth millennium BP.


This article is part of the Guide to the History of Animal Domestication.