Cats: How long have lived with humans?

Today, cats are the most popular pets in the United States.

But our relationship with cats began long ago. Cats and people are depicted together in Egyptian art from nearly 4,000 years ago, but recent discoveries on the island of Cyprus now lead archaeologists to believe that the human-cat relationship might have started as much as 5,500 years before that.

Both dogs and cats are descended from a small shrew-like animal – their ancestors parted company 40 million years ago. Our modern house kitty is derived from a population of African wildcat, probably domesticated by the Cypriots. The first cats might have wandered into early human settlements as scavengers and then were domesticated to prey on the rodents that raided food supplies.

In ancient Egypt, cats were held in high regard – even associated with gods. Cats were raised by the wealthy and buried in special cemeteries. Anyone caught ill-treating a cat was severely punished.

But it was the cats that were punished in Europe during the Middle Ages. Then cats were associated with witchcraft – and routinely tortured and killed. By the mid-17th century – in France – cats were once again accepted in human society.

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January 12, 2010

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