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The Neolithic Cat

From the Scotsman - 9/4/04

Ancient grave adds years to feline history


MAN'S second best friend has been around 5,000 years longer than thought, according to scientists who have unearthed evidence of the world's first pet cat. The animal, buried in a 9,500-year-old grave alongside a human skeleton presumed to be that of its owner, was identified as Felis silvestris, the African wildcat. Historians believed Egyptians first made pets of cats 4,000 years ago. Scientists, however, have suspected that tamed cats existed before the Egyptian era, but there was no evidence.

But now the discovery at Shillourokambos, in Cyprus, a Neolithic village inhabited from 8300BC, provides that evidence of association between cat and human. Archaeologists found artefacts in the grave that indicated that the person had social standing. The cat was buried next to it, in its own grave. Jean-Denis Vigne, the research leader, from the Museum of Natural History in Paris, said: "This strengthens the idea of a special burial and indicates a strong relationship."

The experts believe that if the cat had not been intentionally buried, its bones would have disarticulated. "Not only is it intentionally buried; it was protected," said Mr Vigne. It looks as if the animal - aged about eight months - was the person's pet and had been killed to join its owner in the "afterlife". Both cat and human had been placed in the ground symmetrically, with their heads pointing to the west.

"I am not completely convinced that the common orientation of the skeletons makes sense," said Mr Vigne. "However, if it did, I think that this strong proximity between both of them in death should be interpreted as additional evidence of a strong relationship in life." And he added: "It is an exceptional discovery."

The discovery excited cat experts. Jo Rothery, the editor of Cat World magazine, said: "It's fascinating. Hand-reared wild species often make tame pets. This wildcat would never have been as tame as today's domestic cat, but it could have been manageable as a pet. People say cats are independent animals, but at the same time they relate very closely to people."

Cats have become the most popular pet in Britain, taking the top spot from dogs two years ago. Roger Breton, an expert on felines, added: "Domestication of cats was not easily accomplished, as they have no built-in co-operative instincts, but the mechanics of it were simple. People gave up nomadic lifestyles for agrarian communities. Stored crops attracted vermin, which attracted wildcats, which were encouraged to stay. First they were approached, then petted and eventually held."
nickbrand Posted by nickbrand
9th April 2004ce
Edited 9th April 2004ce

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