Cats Became Pets Much Earlier Than Thought, According to Neolithic Fossils

By Gemma Tarlach | December 16, 2013 2:00 pm


The process of wild cats turning into rodent-hunters, then pampered pets, and, eventually, enthusiastic Roomba riders, is poorly understood. But a new archaeological study suggests cats were domesticated much earlier, and over a much broader area, than previously believed.

Data on cat domestication is sparse. Remains of a wild cat were buried near a human on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus 9,500 years ago, but the oldest evidence of domestic cats comes from Egypt, 4,000 years ago. What cats were up to in the five millennia between the two discoveries is almost a complete mystery (though we suspect napping took up a good deal of that time).

Cats in China

In the new paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers examined 5,300-year-old feline bones found in the excavated Neolithic village of Quanhucun, China. They determined that the animals were within the size range of modern domestic cats, rather than the larger Near Eastern wild cats from which domestic cats descended.

That discovery pushes back the earliest domestication of cats in China from approximately 2,000 years ago to over 5,000 years ago. This suggests that the cat-human relationship developed in the Near East and dispersed across Eurasia thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

Pet Theory

The Quanhucun cat bones came from at least two animals. Using isotopic analysis, the team determined the cats ate a significant amount of millet, the main crop grown in the settlement. One of the cats, however, consumed much less meat and more millet than the other. Grain-based diets are unusual for cats, which are natural carnivores. The surprising results led the researchers to theorize the animal may have been unable to hunt and either was tolerated as a scavenger of leftovers or even kept as a pet.

The jawbone of the second cat studied had teeth showing significant wear associated with age. An elderly cat indicates an environment conducive to the species. The cat may even have survived to its advanced age with some help from caring villagers (who likely received little show of affection in return).

Based on other archeological finds at the site, the team believes the cats acted as pest control for the villagers’ millet stores. But the advanced age of one of the cats studied, as well as the other cat’s millet-rich diet, suggest the cats may have been valued as more than mere rodent-catchers, and even cared for as pets. (There is no evidence, however, that they were ever forced to wear humiliating outfits.)

The study’s rewriting of cats’ domestication timeline is impressive. But as significant as the Quanhucun find is, it would still be more than 5,000 years before the human-cat relationship evolved from one of mutual convenience to one of one-sided obsession.


Image by Sydneymills / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, select
MORE ABOUT: animals, cats
  • Marta Fernandes

    “who likely received little show of affection in return”

    Would you happen to have cats? Because I find it hard to believe someone with cats would say something like that. Cats definitely reciprocate the affection they’re given. If a person pays little to no attention to her/his cat, the cat won’t care about the person either (I know of situations like this), but if a person gives lots of love and care to her/his cat, the cat will give it right back. I have 4 cats and they’re always after me, always rubbing their nose in my hands and legs, always trying to sleep on my lap (since they’re 4 sometimes it doesn’t end well), they’re waiting for me by the door when I get home, they meow incessantly when I go to the bathroom and don’t let them in… Believe me, it’s anything but a one-sided obsession. I give them affection, they give me affection. It probably helps that I let them be cats and don’t force them to wear any kind of outfit.

    • GemmaTarlach

      Hi Marta. I do have a cat, Charles, whom I adopted from our local animal control. I have had other cats in the past. All of them lived good, long, spoiled lives but were affectionate only when they heard the rustle of the treat bag opening. As for the human-cat relationship not being, in your opinion, a one-sided obsession, I would love to see the websites cats have set up full of photos of humans. Please do share! 😉 (And remember, it’s okay to have some fun with news of scientific discoveries now and then.)

      • Marta Fernandes

        Hi! Sorry if my comment was in any way rude or if I sounded upset, it wasn’t my intention. I merely meant to say that I don’t agree with the idea that a lot of people have that cats aren’t affectionate. Mine are, all the time, and not just when I feed them. I did raise them since they were babies, having taken them in from the street, so they’re very attached to me. Besides, I know plenty of other people whose cats are also affectionate.

        As for the two-sided obsession, I was talking about the relationship I have with my cats and not about cats and humans in general. My cats don’t post pictures of me online because… well, they’re cats. :-) Then again, I don’t post pictures of them online either, so…

      • Barbara Ellison

        Really??? Only when treat bag rustles? 😀 I don’t give my cats treats, because all of them can’t tolerate them..But they are least affectionate when they want food..They meow loudly in a demanding tone til I get their food in front of them, and smack each other around as I am preparing their food.. When they are not in FEED ME NOW mode, they are all very affectionate..One crawls up and drapes his head over my shoulder and justs hangs there..another reaches out to pull my hand toward him..Another who just appeared under my hickory tree one day who was maybe 4 or 5 months old ran and jumped into my arms like we already knew each other, and has remained one of the most affectionate boys ever since…I could go on..and on…but you get the gist of it.. :).

      • stevendoh

        You obviously didn’t raise your cats right then if the only time they were afectionate was when you gave them treats.

        My cats sleep in bed with me every night, in the morning when the alarm goes off they get right into my face to say hello…no they aren’t waiting for food, they have an endless supply via the automatic feeder.

        Ive had cats my whole life 6…yes 6 of them when I was kid and they all circled me every day and rubbed against me and jumped all over me.

        Honestly I just don’t think you’re good with the affection side of things. You might be a good care giver, but not a good attention giver.

        • GemmaTarlach

          Please be sure to pick up a copy of the September issue of Discover, on newsstands Aug. 12 (or online, for our online subscribers) to read my “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Cats.” Cheers!

        • GemmaTarlach

          Hey, we decided to make my 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Cats free online for everyone, not just subscribers. Check it out: …I’m sure you’ll find plenty of new material you can use to form judgments about my character. 😉

    • bertinanth764

      My Uncle Harrison got a nearly new
      blue Buick Regal GS by work using a laptop. recommended you read J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • dannyR

    Our having had several cats in our parents’ house, I can assure the scientists that cats were domesticated by the sound of a can-opener.

  • Martin S Shepherd

    Having had four cats so far in my life… I can attest that every single one was very affectionate. Every single one was an indoo/outdoor cat and learned my schedules. They would come running when I pulled into the drive/walk up to the door/pull into the parking lot – not to be fed as I always kept their food bowl full. Each one slept on my bed – and, would only roam at night after I fell asleep – but, would be sleeping at the foot of my bed when I woke up. Each followed me around the house, loved to sit in my lap (whether I pet them or not)… I couldn’t imagine having a more affectionate pet than the one I currently have….

    • stevendoh

      EXACTLY my situation Martin! I think the key is the full food bowl…your relationship becomes more loving rather than a “feed me now” type of relationship.

  • SixSixSix

    Ah, new evidence now unveiled shows that ancient LOLCats appeared on the Internet several millennia earlier than presumed. These in turn may have led to the domestication of the human species by cats much further back in pre-history, perhaps even before the era of Gopher and other not so successful efforts to manipulate early humans by rodents before the relatively recent success of modern hamsters and gerbils.

    • Lisa Willinger

      I too thought the piece sounded a bit disparaging to cats. Perhaps the writer was trying to be funny but cat lovers tend to be a passionate and humor-challenged group (at least where our beloved cats are concerned) so the humor was a risky undertaking.

      Once when I interviewed for a job on a hit TV show, I had to sit on a couch on which two rat like dogs slept. My interviewer, the Executive Producer, who shall remain nameless, asked me, “Are you o.k. with dogs?”

      “I like dogs ” I told him, adding,”I don’t have one now but I do have a cat named Fido. Perhaps once Fido is gone we will get a dog.”

      He smiled sinisterly, “I could kill your cat.”

      I just looked at him.

      He had basically just offered to kill our CHILD. That cat was like a family member. We found him as an emaciated stray who’d lost his family after the Northridge Quake and he lived with us as an integral part of our lives for 15 years (unusual for an indoor/outdoor car.) True to the name we gave him, Fido kitty followed us on walks through our neighborhood (off leash.) He also sat on the floor in the middle of the room during parties, appearing to follow and even enjoy the conversations. He also came when we called his name and/or whistled.

      I used to say that he was of a unique species–the cat-dog. Alas his kidneys failed last year. We had him humanely euthanized and cremated and his ashes sit in an urn bearing his name. I miss him still.

  • Jeff_Bell

    There seems to be a heated discussion about whether or not cats give a hoot about the people they live with. I have lived with cats since I was 9 months old. I am 63 now. So that is a lot of cat history. It has been my experience that cats are not much into dispensing unconditional love. That is more possible from dogs, it seems. On the other hand, if you treat cats really well, act with respect and love towards them, it is often reciprocated. In other words, love from a cat is mostly love that is earned.

    It also seems to be easier to cultivate a tight relationship with a cat when you start when they are young.

    Lastly it is important to NEVER hit a cat, even with a rolled up newspaper as one might do with a dog (I don’t approve of that, even with dogs, but some people do). And never do anything to frighten or intimidate a cat. It takes a long, long time for them to get over it if you do.

    We mostly let our cats do as they please. On the rare occasions that they do something that we really need for them to stop doing or not repeat, we calmly and quietly ask them not to do it. This probably sounds crazy to anyone who is not a serious cat nut, but it actually works most of the time. And it is always better than yelling or otherwise “disciplining” a cat, which never seems to work.

  • Chris Sato

    I am sick and tired of journalists and other people and some dog lovers as well who poke fun at the thought of cats as being detached from their owners. All of my friends own cats, and all of their cats return their love. My own cats are positiviely codependent–they follow me around, constantly want up on my lap, sleep on me at night. They come when they are called. Like humans, all animals have distinct personalities. So quit beating a dead horse, if you want to use another outdated joke, and quit pissing off half the population of pet owners out there.

  • Jan

    I’m 72 and have lived with cats since I was a kid on a farm. I have probably “owned” over three dozen cats during my lifetime; each as individual as any human being. I have learned that cats, as most animals, will respond to kindness, care, respect and love.
    My husband and I currently have four (all originally feral) which we call our own (meaning they get house privileges and veterinary care). Then there are the current crop of feral cats passing through which get a meal if they show up, outdoor shelter (barn, smoke house, etc.) and affection in varying degrees. For example, one long haired polydactyl male can’t tolerate being touched so he gets a running conversation when he shows up for a meal. He knows his name and comes when called, if he feels like it. As you may have guessed, we live in a rural farm area. But I also lived in the city for many years, in a neighborhood of row houses which had just as many feral cats. Those that I “owned” I kept strictly indoors. But I also fed feral cats in the city. One long haired male lived in my back yard for eight years. My indoor city cats were much more alert to my activities than my country cats because their world was much smaller. They greeted me at the door, vied for my lap, claimed my possessions (shoes, pillows, sweaters, etc.) and slept in my bed. My country cats have more distractions, like hunting frogs, moles, snakes, grasshoppers and field mice and climbing trees, but they do respond when I call them for supper or to come in for the night. And they like my lap, claim my belongings and sleep in my bed just as much as my city cats did.
    I have never known a nasty cat and I believe they can be just as loving and loyal as dogs depending on how they are raised. But they are much more independent and can be quite aloof if they feel like it. It’s just the cat personality and should not be taken personally. If you really know your cat well you can probably get it to do whatever you want by using a little psychology.

    • stevendoh

      I have 5 ferals that I feed on my back deck every day…they won’t let me touch them but I talk to them every day….they wait by the window until I see them and feed them.

  • Steve

    My wife has two cats, I have allergies. Cats are very loving to their owners/feeders. The author was however referring to a cat from 5000 years ago. Yes, a modern domesticated cat is as loving as your allergies will allow. However the “first known” wild-ish (eat my rats, and I won’t eat you) cat bond MAY have been quite different from what we are accustomed to. That, I believe is what the author was writing about. I’m not defending the validity of this article, just the opinion of the author.

  • Daniel Wood

    Humans on the planet for 2 million years? Cats how many years? The beginning of grain production by humans? Cats eat rodents that eat grain, help humans 5300 years ago. How smart are we today.

  • anonymus

    this doesn’t help AT ALL


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