9. The Domestication Of Plants And Animals Occurred In The Cat Evolution & Domestication

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Cat Evolution & Domestication

The evolution of cats has been going on for a long time… longer than humans have been on earth. And when the humans finally showed up, the cat let us in.

Noah may have had cats in the Ark he built for the great flood, but were they the ancestors of what we know as the domestic cat of today? It can be confusing to think that all there is in the world is all it ever was in light of so much evidence to the contrary, ie. fossil discoveries. I think the story of Noah is meant to convey a greater meaning than that of the replanting of life after a particularly heavy rain. Scholars generally place the flood sometime between the 2nd and 3rd millennium BC, or about 4-5 thousand years ago. This was the time when the Egyptians were domesticating the first cats. Did they board? And how safe did the mice and rats feel? Were the cats guardians of the crated food stores that everyone depended on until dry ground was underfoot again? And how did those Koalas get on the ship if they were confined to mainland Australia? Indeed, the best 5,000 years can do is raise many questions.

The great equalizer in any debate is time. Time changes everything, including the diameter of a species. As people spread around the world, their skin changed color, eating habits adapted to new environments, clashes with others also occurred in migration for precious lands that provided resources favorable to life, ie. food plants/food grains.

Survival is unforgiving of failure. One either survives… or not. It is an identifying characteristic of “life” that wants to survive. Another characteristic of survival is that individual members of a species do not, or rather do so only for a limited time. A longevity as we call it. Only large groups or classifications of rocks, trees, and other sentient beings, including that of any species, can survive indefinitely, if successful.

The fossil record of cat evolution is extremely incomplete. There is evidence that traces the cat back to around 200 million years ago, with the evolution of cats beginning when they split from reptiles. Since that point, scientists have divided the cat family into two large groups. The tabby cat, which includes all modern cat species, and the saber-toothed cat, which are all extinct. The ‘Family Felidae’ or felines are grouped into three genera:

  • Panther – Lions and tigers and… panthers, or roaring cats.
  • Felis – Your lynx, ocelot, Fluffy and other small cats.
  • Acinonyx – or cheetah. They are in a group of their own because they cannot retract their claws like all other cats.

Originally, diagrams of cat evolution had cats divided into two main groups: Big Cats and Small Cats. The difference was based on the size and shape of their skulls. But the division was found to be untenable as studies eventually showed a gradual transition of skull characteristics from smaller cats to larger cats. There was essentially no distinct difference using that criterion.

Recently, DNA studies have provided insight into the evolution of cats as they migrated from Asia to North America via the Bering Sea Land Bridge that appeared about 9 million years ago. These panther-like predators first appeared in Asia about 2 million years before the Land Bridge was exposed by falling sea levels. Cats are considered, next to humans, the most successful of hunters. They would have followed migrating prey and easily survived the challenges of roaming vast territories while exploring new environments. (Think of a kitten sniffing around an unexplored bush or strange new object, inside or outside its territory) Later, some American lineages of newly evolved cats returned to Asia via the Bridge, and with each migration, evolutionary forces transformed these cats into a rainbow of species ranging from lions and leopards to the lynx, ocelot and today’s domestic cat. Where were the people at this time? Well, it can’t be found yet… Anatomically modern humans only evolved in Africa, between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, according to most experts using deductions based on mitochondrial DNA data. Of course, the evolution of cats is long in history and exists in this world.

About 10,000 years ago, when humans stopped being hunter-gatherers and began to cultivate the land, the relationship between humans and cats began. At that time cats inhabited most parts of the world except the Arctic, Antarctica, Australia and the inhospitable regions of the tundra. As the first modern humans migrated from Central Africa to Europe and Asia, it would have been impossible for the paths of cats and humans not to cross. But it was when humans began domesticating crops that certain types of cats and humans began to have an interdependent relationship, creating an interesting, if not fatal, twist in feline evolution.

Early on the newly evolved farmers found that food storage, especially grain storage, became an attraction for small rodents such as mice and rats. Archaeological evidence supports this given that the discovered storage ruins have a predominance of rodent skeletons buried within the storage relics. It can easily be assumed that the smaller cats followed their prey to the farms and perhaps could not resist the concentration of the feast of mice and rats that these early silos offered. Humans, being an intelligent creature themselves, would have noticed the antipathy that rodents and cats had (have) for each other. An early farmer may have come across a litter of kittens and taken them home to raise in order to protect his hard work from the fields.

Most likely, the first young kittens would have retained much of their wild nature and kept a ‘safe’ distance from their human benefactor. But as the kitten generations had more human contact, especially being treated by humans as a kitten, they would have become tolerant and receptive to human interaction with cats, perhaps even sleeping in their homes. Speculating this way, the early stages of domestication may have begun. Two species of cats were most successful in adapting to this new relationship, Felis Silvestris and Felis Lybica. Silvestris became more adaptable to European environments and climates while Lybica preferred the Middle East.

The early Egyptians had many deities, and these gods were attributed animal-like qualities. The main god of Egypt was the sun god Ra, symbolized by a lion. Ra was said to rule the world during the day by shining from a sun chariot that traveled across the sky from dawn to dusk. At night he fell into darkness where he was vulnerable to his enemies. But, having the qualities of a lion, he had the vision of a cat that could see in the dark to better protect himself. Bast was known as the goddess of fertility, birth and family, who was also symbolized by a cat. The Egyptians did not notice how strong the maternal instinct is in cats when caring for their kittens. Cats were buried with the pharaohs and their cemeteries were even granted to commoners who had cats in their care.

It was after the rise of the Roman Empire that cats came to Europe as a domesticated animal. Cats also lost their ‘god’ status and took on the more practical role of being a ‘pet’. By then, the cat-mouse-human triangle was pretty well established, and as humans migrated, cultivating the world as they went, the cat and mouse went along with them. Domestic cats traveled the spice routes to Asia and sailed the seas to the Americas. Wherever they have gone, cats have created populations not only by interbreeding with their own kind, but by interbreeding with the indigenous species they encountered along the way. The result has been a plethora of fur colors, hair lengths and coat patterns that identify cats today.

The effects of domestication on the evolution of cats can be summarized as follows:

  • Period of competition (before 7000 BC) characterized by wild cats competing with hunter-gatherer humans for birds and small mammals.
  • The Commensal Period (7000 – 4000 BC) characterized by ‘semi-domestic’ cats feeding on vermin around and within early villages.
  • Period of early domestication (4000 – 3000 BC) with the restriction of cats to cult status
  • Period of full domestication (3000 BC – present) popularization of cat keeping and spread of cats from Egypt*

The close coexistence that cats and humans began when cultures began to formulate and we as humans settled down from our hunter-gatherer wanderings could be thought of as a chance encounter. Our early agricultural ancestors had to solve many problems, the solutions of which we take for granted today. But the cat has not forgotten their contribution to our success and this may also be due to their seemingly proud nature. Ultimately, the interconnectedness of everything in this world is only exceeded by the human arrogance to reject such an idea by believing in our mental superiority, which then only perpetuates a belief in our disconnection from nature. Fortunately, only humans are capable of such mumbling. Cats have never forgotten their roots. Roots buried deep in the cat’s evolution, domestication and time.

There are times when I find myself, like many others I suspect, lost within the solitude that results from accepting the singularity of being, or the distance that seems to be between each of us in this life. That’s when I can only look up at the sky, marveling at the distance that exists between me and the infernal furnaces that are the stars. Even at that great distance, which is measured in the time it takes light to travel in a year, I take comfort in knowing that we are all made of the same stuff pouring out of those light factories. We are so interconnected… yet this is blindly taken for granted as we go about our bloated daily activities. Returning to this spot, my kitten lies on my lap and I stroke her back as she silently accepts the love. It doesn’t take much to reverse our roles, and put myself in her place, even become her back, enjoying the stroke of my hand on her. And, with a little imagination, I can trace the evolutionary path of cats in my mind.

*Thanks to Feline Advice Bureau – Wiltshire, UK

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