The Cat's Out Of The Bag - Ep 07

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Felis catus is the domesticated form of the African wildcat Felis s. lybica. The latter is believed to have been domesticated in the Near East at the time of the Neolithic agricultural revolution, where keeping pests away from grain storage would have been paramount. It likely that, much like other domesticates, several domestication attempts would have taken place across time and geographical regions.

As rodents such as the rat and house mouse hitchhiked their way across Europe, cats were soon to follow. One notable case is perhaps Cyprus, which was never attached to the mainland and had no native cat population. Cats’ sudden appearance around 7500BCE (most notably with a young adult individual associated with a human burial) thus imply that these would have been tamed wildcats at the very least which had been brought to Cyprus by boat.

Perceptions of domestic cats were somewhat ambivalent, as can still be perceived from contemporary folklore. This led to them being viewed as creatures imbued with supernatural abilities, both revered and reviled. Cats were notably worshipped in Ancient Egypt, yet killed by the hundreds to be sold as mummies; persecuted in the Medieval period for supposedly being witches’ familiars, or simply being viewed as ratters or even pests. While their ‘dog cousins’ were being selectively bred for a variety of functions, cats merely lingered at the edge of human settlements - though cases of companionship exist. It was in fact not until the late 18th century that the cat fancy developed along with the vast majority of the breeds we see today.

It’s not easy being a cat.

Case Studies

  • Gussage All Saints

  • Dried Cats

  • Cyprus cat burials

Further Reading

  • Archaeology of the Domestic Cat

  • Dried Cats

  • https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/eh_monographs_2014/contents.cfm?mono=1089034

  • Brian Hoggard, 'Concealed Animals', in Ronald Hutton, The Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, 2015, Palgrave, pp106-117.

  • Brian Hoggard, 'The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic', in Owen Davies & Willem de Blecourt, Beyond the Witch-Trials, 2004, Manchester University Press, pp167-186.

  • Margaret M Howard, ‘Dried Cats’, Man, no 252, November 1951, pp149-151.

  • Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, 1987, Batsford, London.

  • Bradshaw, J. (2013) Cat sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed. London, Penguin Books

  • Clutton-Brock, J. (1994) The British Museum Book of Cats. London, The British Museum Press

  • Fagan, B. (2015) The Intimate Bond: How animals shaped human history. London: Bloomsbury Press

  • Toynbee, J.M.C. (2013) Animals in Roman Life & Art. Barnsley: Pen & Sword

  • Van Grouw, K. (2018) Unnatural Selection. Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press

  • Houlbrook, C. and Armitage, N. (Eds.) (2015) The Materiality of Magic. Oxford: Oxbow Books.