Ancient Egypt link to today’s domestic cat
The scientists extracted DNA from the remains of animals ritually slaughtered as offerings to the gods more than 2,200 years ago with the aim of discovering what genes they had in common with modern cats and wild cats, to estimate when humans turned them into pets.
The results suggest modern cats owe their origins to the ancient Egyptians, said Jennifer Kurushima (pictured near left), a scientist at the University of California Davis, who led the research.
“Modern cats can trace their genealogy to the time of the pharaohs . . . the Egyptians may well have been the first cat breeders, an important step in the domestication process of cats,” according to a paper by Kurushima and her colleagues just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Cats featured in early Egyptian art from as early as 4,000BC. The animals were still revered in the later Egyptian period, featuring in tomb art and statues, and were believed to be a manifestation of Bastet, the goddess of beauty (pictured far left above).
However, being revered was not always such a good thing for cats — because killing and mummifying the creatures was also believed to be a way of appeasing the gods. Thousands of mummified felines have been found in Egyptian tombs and catacombs, usually with ritually broken necks.
Kurushima and her colleagues extracted mitochondrial DNA from three cats that had been mummified between 2,700 and 2,200 years ago. The results were compared with DNA taken from modern wild cats and domestic cats.
Kurushima said the results suggested modern cats owed their ancestry to the cats of ancient Egypt — because they were bred in their millions by catteries for sale as sacrifices.
“Millions of cat mummies were offered and buried in areas throughout Egypt. To supply the demand for votive offerings, catteries were established to raise large numbers of felines for slaughter.” Other archeologists have reported finding what seems to have been a wild cat buried with a human in a neolithic village in Cyprus, dating to about 9,500 years ago. One idea is that cats were encouraged to settle in such villages to control mice.
Kurushima suggests such practices may have spread by cats being traded around the region and becoming revered, with the Egyptians becoming the first big breeders later.