Cats - Ancient West Asia
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Where are cats from?

clay head of a cat
Sumerian clay head of a cat
(Iraq, ca. 3000-2000 BC)

February 2017 - Wildcats first evolved from earlier mammals in Europe during the late Tertiary period, about four million years ago. By around 50,000 years ago, wildcats had spread into West Asia, and by around 40,000 BC, there were cats all across Asia and North Africa. So cats were spreading east across Asia about the same time that people were, but coming from Europe instead of from Africa.

Around 12,000 BC, as people in West Asia began farming, cats started to hang out around human villages, eating people's garbage, and the mice and rats attracted by the farmers' stored wheat and barley. By 7500 BC, cats and people liked each other enough that someone on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus was buried with a cat. Cats couldn't get to an island by themselves, so people must have brought cats there. About 3000 BC, people in China were also beginning to farm, and Chinese cats began to eat rats and garbage in Chinese villages, too. But even though cats lived among people, people didn't make pets of them. There are almost no housecats in art; cats aren't mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

white stone carving of a cat
Middle Kingdom Egyptian cat (ca. 1900 BC,
now in Metropolitan Museum, New York)

The first people who admired and worshipped cats were the Old Kingdom Egyptians, beginning around 2100 BC. The Egyptian word for cat was "miw" from the sound they made - which was also the Chinese word. Still nobody else took much interest in cats: there aren't any cats in Homer or Hesiod, or Sophocles, or in Athenian vase-painting, or in the Hebrew Bible, or in Confucius or Lao Tzu.

orange cat on black background
Cat (South Italy, ca. 400 BC
now in Nicholson Museum, Sidney)

Nobody knows why, but people's feelings about cats changed suddenly around 400 BC. Cats appear in Aristophanes' plays. They're carved into Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri. By 300 BC this new attitude towards cats reached India, where cats are mentioned in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the Jataka tales.

mosaic of a cat eating a partridge
Roman cat (House of the Faun,
Pompeii, ca. 50 AD)

By 100 BC, artists are carving cats in Han Dynasty China - and they're not the local cats, but West Asian cats that have been brought to China along the Silk Road. Even the word for cat changes: instead of calling them by their old name, "miw", now cats are cats - "katta", "cattus", "katze", "qat", "khatoul" all across Europe, North Africa, and West Asia (though China kept the old "Miw"). ("Puss" probably comes from the sound you make calling a cat.)

two cats playing, flowers
Cats in the Garden,
by Mao Yi (1100s AD, Song Dynasty)

A thousand years later, people's feelings about cats shifted again. The new religion of Islam, coming from near Egypt, strongly supported cats and rejected dogs as dirty. Across Spain, North Africa, West Asia, India, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia, cats became even more popular than before. In Christian Europe, cats seemed a little heretical, associated with witches, and dogs stayed more popular. As Europeans invaded the Americas, Africa, and Australia, they brought cats with them, but the division persisted: cats are more popular in Muslim areas, and dogs are more popular in Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist areas, even today.

Learn by doing - try to draw a cat by looking at one
More about the history of dogs
More about ancient Egypt

Bibliography and further reading about the history of cats:

More about dogs
Navajo dogs
More about early games and toys
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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