Domestication of the cat
The wild ancestor of our domestic cat is Felis silvestris, and more precisely its Levantino-African subspecies, F. s. lybica. The exact place and date of its domestication is unknown, but domestic status seems to have been reached by the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 – 1782 BC) in Egypt, at the latest during the 12th dynasty (c. 1976 – 1793 BC) when the animal begins to appear frequently in Egyptian art. However, a tomb painting from Saqqarah dated to the 5th dynasty (c. 2500 – 2350) depicts a cat with what seems to be a collar around its neck and three hieroglyphs representing seated cats have been found on a limestone building block probably dating to the end of the Old Kingdom and perhaps to the 6th dynasty (Pepy II c. 2278 – 2184 BC).
Hierakonpolis is located between Esna and Edfu in Upper Egypt, and is the largest pre- and protodynastic site known to date, occupied from at least 4000 BC onwards. The so-called elite cemetery (KH 6) is one of the areas that have yielded unique results. Excavations have been on-going since 1979. Thus far, two phases have been recognised:
- Naqada IC – IBB period (c. 3800 – 3650 BC)
- Naqada IIIA2 – IIIC1 period (c. 3200 – 3000 BC) and continuing into the 1st dynasty (c. 3050 – 2890 BC)
HK6 is unparalleled in the Predynastic period for the number and variety of animal taxa discovered buried within the graves. These included both domestic animals and wild species such as baboon, elephant, wild donkey, hartebeest, hippopotamus and aurochs.
A small felid
Recent re-examination of the contents of Tomb 12 at HK6 revealed the remains of a small, young felid together with the bones of at least 7 baboons and a hippoptamus of only a few days old. The felid appears to be too small for the swamp cat (Felis chaus) and too large for sand cat (Felis margarita). Although not conclusive, the evidence is in favour of the small felid being the wild cat (Felis silvestris) and, considering the geographical area, this would most likely be the subspecies Felis silvestris lybica. Fusion data indicates that the animal was probably about 6 to 8 months old at death, and was most probably a male. The left humerus shows a healed fracture with a smooth callus in the upper third part of the diaphysis. This fracture is consolidated in an oblique angle of about 30 degrees, as a result of which the bone is about 7% shorter than the right humerus. The right femur also shows evidence of a healed fracture which lead to shortening of the bone.
Whilst wild cat remains from settlement contexts merely prove that the species was hunted, the buried individual from HK6 indicates that it was also caught to be kept in captivity. The bone fractures probably healed without direct intervention, but without human protection against predators and without nursing, the cat would probably not have survived. Taking the length of the healing period into account, the animal most probably was held in captivity for at least 4 – 6 weeks. This, therefore, suggests attempts to tame cats. The process of cat domestication was probably very gradual, leading to full domestic status only during the Middle and New Kingdom. The felid from HK6 provides us with evidence for an early stage in that process.
Reference: Linseele, V., Van Neer, W., and Hendrickx, S. 2007. Evidence for early cat taming in Egypt. Journal of Archaeological Science 34: 2081-2090