9,500-year-old cat `grave' found

Archaeologists on Cyprus unearth bones apparently buried next to cat's owner

April 09, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

No one is sure when cats first adopted humans - entering our homes and picking a favorite spot to be admired, fed and stroked.

But researchers digging on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus have unearthed a 9,500-year-old feline skeleton, buried intact near the remains of a human.

That's about 3,000 years earlier than previous evidence of a cat-human association.

A team of French scientists announced yesterday that the specimen of an 8-month-old Felis silvestris, uncovered in a Neolithic village, was considerably larger than most of today's domestic varieties - about the size of a modern African wildcat.

Although it expanded the known history of the cat-as-pet, today's report in the journal Science came as no surprise to experts. Cats and people have been mixing for thousands of years, they say.

"Cats have been domesticated by almost every culture," said David Silverman, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and an expert on the role of cats in ancient Egypt.

Scientists say cats probably began gathering around human settlements about 10,000 years ago because they were attracted to the grain collected by early agrarian societies in Asia and the Middle East.

The cats least afraid of humans were probably the first to make friends with people in early farm communities. The humans quickly appreciated the cat's mouse-chasing abilities.

"It's almost like they domesticated themselves," said James Dines, manager of the mammal collection at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The Romans took domestic cats to the lands they conquered, and wild varieties were common in ancient times throughout Europe and the Middle East.

The Egyptians were among the first civilizations to keep cats as pets. They bred them to produce distinct species up to 6,500 years ago, and their images adorn Egyptian tombs and other ancient sites.

Along with keeping mice away, cats in Egypt were ritually killed and mummified, so the remains could be purchased and buried at shrines to Bastet, an Egyptian goddess noted for her kindness, some expert say.

But Penn's Silverman argued that the role of cats as religious symbols in ancient Egypt has been greatly exaggerated.

Although the Egyptians might have placed some religious significance in the cat as a symbol of grace, they saw significance in other animals as well, including the crocodile, lion and baboon, Silverman said.

"It wasn't that they necessarily held all cats as sacred. They domesticated cats and kept them as pets," Silverman said. "It's not as if every cat that walked the Earth was looked at as a goddess."

But experts have long believed that Egyptians weren't the first to domesticate cats. They say domestication goes back about 10,000 years.

In the study released yesterday by the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, researchers cited several pieces of evidence that point toward domestication at the Cyprus site.

First, cats are not native to the Mediterranean island.

The cat also was found in a grave that was intentionally dug and then rapidly covered up, the researchers say.

They note that if the cat had not been buried, the bones probably would have been dispersed by wild game.

In addition, the human grave contained a variety of "offerings," such as axes, polished stones, ochre and flint tools, and 24 seashells. The artifacts suggest the human had a special social status, the researchers said.

The site also has yielded tens of thousands of stone artifacts, along with animal bones and human remains.

The cat skeleton was dug up about 16 inches from that of the human, a proximity that prompted researchers to speculate about a "strong association" between cat and human.

"The young cat might have been killed, in order to be buried at the same time as the human," the report said.

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