Complete History of Cat Domestication Reveals Eternal Autonomy

People love to gush about when their cat has done something cute or funny or kind of disturbing. But is it really their cat, or is it just a cat who kind of lives with them but could also totally live without them? According to this new PBS video giving a complete rundown of how people domesticated cats—on two separate occasions—the cat-human relationship skews more toward the latter description. Although cats do really like eating our food, so we’ll always have that incentive to encourage them to bond with us.

While we’ve seen tons of scientific videos covering cat behavior (including why they love sleeping in their owners’ beds so much, and how to properly pet them), it’s good to have some historical background on the little furry companions so we can get a complete sense of why they both apparently disdain and tolerate us.

The video starts out by noting that the first recorded evidence of cat domestication comes from 9,500 years ago on the island of Cyprus. On the island country in the Eastern Mediterranean, which now has local peoples outnumbered by cats 1.2 million to 1.5 million, archaeologists discovered the remains of an ancient man who was buried next to offerings, including things like flint tools and seashells, as well as an eight-month-old cat. When scientists deciphered the age of the cat, they found it predated the more well-known examples of cat domestication in Egypt by 4,000 years.

This short video essay covers the complete history of cat domestication.

A Cyprus cat chillin’ in the sun. Roman Cherednychenko

Although a more exact timing of when cats first became domesticated is unknown, the video does note that it probably happened thanks to a process of domestication known as “the commensal pathway.” According to the wiki for the term, the commensal pathway is a route to domestication that occurs when animals hang around humans in order to snatch scraps of food they leave behind. While this initial step on the commensal pathway to domestication more or less only serves to benefit the animals scarfing down the scraps, later on, they develop closer social bonds with people as they come to rely on them more and more.

Despite the shared history between people and cats, as well as cats’ reliance on people for food, the video highlights the fact that cats have always been, at least relative to many other domesticated animals, quite autonomous. This is because cats are generally solitary hunters, and didn’t conform as easily to human society as say, dogs, did. Cats have also remained relatively untamed because domesticated cats continue to mate with wild cats at an especially high rate.

This short video essay covers the complete history of cat domestication.

The various cat subspecies descended from their ancestor, Felis lybica, the African wildcat. PBS

All of this history of cat domestication has led cats to become quite unique amongst animals people like to keep around. They’re not beasts of burden like oxen or horses, nor are they herded easily like sheep. Instead, it seems like they’ve become more like roommates than pets. Which means from now on, instead of saying your cat did something, you should say, your cat-mate did something. Although on second thought, that could be taken the wrong way.

What do you think about this video on the history of cat domestication? How autonomous is your little murder-y fluffball? Excavate your opinions in the comments below!

Feature image: Nic McPhee

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