Sunday, June 14, 2009

The domestication of the cat

Why do humans like cats so much? Felis catus is now mankind's most popular pet, with over 600 million of them living among us. But how did it get to be that way? Unlike other domesticated animals, such cows, horses, chickens, sheep and dogs, cats really haven't contributed much to humankind's survival save their ability to kill destructive or dangerous vermin such as mice, rats and scorpions.

This month's Scientific American has a fascinating article about the cat and about how it became one of our companion animals in spite of the fact that it doesn't provide us with meat or wool, we can't ride them or use them to tow carriages, they don't help us hunt or herd and they are not, to say the least, particularly compliant.

The short story is that we didn't adopt cats as much as they adopted us. With early agricuture came early settlements in the Middle East's Fertile Cresecent, early grain stores, and early mice infestations:
It is almost certainly the case that these house mice attracted cats. But the trash heaps on the outskirts of town were probably just as great a draw, providing year-round pickings for those felines resourceful enough to seek them out. Both these food sources would have encouraged cats to adapt to living with people; in the lingo of evolutionary biology, natural selection favored those cats that were able to cohabitate with humans and thereby gain access to the trash and mice.
As cats adapted to their human surroundings, humans adapted themselves to cats:
Considering that small cats do little obvious harm, people probably did not mind their company. They might have even encouraged the cats to stick around when they saw them dispatching mice and snakes. Cats may have held other appeal, too. Some experts speculate that wildcats just so happened to possess features that might have preadapted them to developing a relationship with people. In particular, these cats have “cute” features—large eyes, a snub face and a high, round forehead, among others—that are known to elicit nurturing from humans. In all likelihood, then, some people took kittens home simply because they found them adorable and tamed them, giving cats a first foothold at the human hearth.
I'd add one other characteristic of cats that made them as agreeable to humans 10,000 years ago as humans today - their purr. A cat's purr is a satisfying and calming sound, and is one that no other domesticated animal makes.

It was in these early settlements in the Fertile Crescent that the cat gradually became domesticated. Domesticated cats were then introduced to ancient Egypt, where they were worshipped, and from there on to Greece, the Roman Empire, the Far East and, eventually, the Americas. Today, cats are members of one out of three American households, including mine.

Anyway, whether you're a cat person or not, this really is a fascinating article. Read the whole thing.

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