Around 9,500 years ago, a human, a cat and a rich variety of offerings were buried together on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Scientists have now discovered the remains of this burial, believed to be the oldest known evidence of a special friendship between humans and cats.
The findings appear in a Brevia article in the 9 April 2004 issue of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.
The ancient Egyptians are generally thought to have been the first to domesticate cats, breeding them to produce a distinct new species around 4,000 to 3,900 years ago. Although researchers have long suspected that humans began taming wild cats much earlier, they had limited evidence supporting this idea.
Wild cats probably began to associate with humans as agricultural societies arose in Western Asia during the Early Prepottery Neolithic period (approximately 11,000 to 10,000 years ago).
"It seems that cats probably came more and more frequently into villages where grain stocks attracted numerous mice. I think that human beings rapidly understood that they could use cats for reducing the number of mice," said study author Jean-Denis Vigne of the CNRS-Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris.
Though the cat goddess Bastet and other feline deities from ancient Egypt are the best-known examples of cats in ancient mythology, archeologists have also discovered older evidence suggesting a spiritual connection between humans and animals, including cats.
Many stones engraved with images of wild cats and other animals have been discovered from Western Asia and dated back to the Early Neolithic. Vigne believes these artifacts are evidence that animals had spiritual significance for humans, though the exact nature of these relationships isn't clear.
"Were they totemic symbols, symbolic representations of human qualities or divinities? I am afraid that the real meaning of these representations is now irreparably lost," Vigne said.
A cat jawbone was first discovered on Cyprus during the 1980s, hinting that humans had tamed these non-native animals. Foxes and other wild animals were also introduced to certain islands around this time, however. While the jawbone was evidence that humans had brought cats from the mainland, it didn't necessarily mean they had tamed them, according to Vigne.
"The first discovery of cat bones on Cyprus showed that human beings brought cats from the mainland to the islands, but we couldn't decide if these cats were wild or tame. With this discovery we can now decide that these cats were linked with humans," he said.
Vigne and his colleagues discovered the burial in Shillourokambos, a large Neolithic village inhabited between 8,300 and 7,000 B.C., which has been excavated under the direction of Jean Guilaine of the Collège de France.
The researchers found a human grave containing a variety of polished stones, tools, jewelry and other items believed to be offerings. A small pit with 24 complete sea shells lay nearby. The skeleton's pelvis was damaged, making it difficult to determine the individual's sex. The offerings were relatively rich for time and region, however, implying that he or she enjoyed some degree of social status.
"The association of this burial with both the sea shells and the cat grave strengthens the idea of a special burial indicating a strong relationship between cats and human beings. Possibly tamed cats were devoted to special activities or special human individuals in the village," Vigne said.
The cat skeleton lay just 40 centimeters away. Both the relative intactness of the skeleton and the surrounding sediment indicated someone had dug a small pit or grave, then placed the cat inside and rapidly covered it. Both skeletons are positioned symmetrically, with their heads to the west, though Vigne doesn't know if this was done intentionally.
"I am not completely convinced that the common orientation of the skeletons makes sense. 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," he said.
The cat belonged to the Felis silvestris species, i.e. the wildcat, which is significantly larger than modern domestic cats.
The cat's bones showed no signs of butchering, another indication that the animal may have been a pet of the person buried nearby or perhaps shared some other relationship with the residents of Shillourokambos. How the animal died remains a mystery, however, and more research will be needed to clarify the nature of the connections between cats and humans during this time period.
Vigne's coauthors J. Guilaine, L. Haye and P. Gérard at CNRS-EHESS, Centre d'Anthropologie, in Toulouse, France; J. Guilaine and P. Gérard are also at Collège de France in Paris, France; and K. Debue at CNRS-Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris, France. The study was supported by the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, the Ministère français des Affaires Etrangères and the Ecole Française d'Athènes.
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