Ancient Egyptians may have given cats the personality to conquer the world

David Grimm in Science:

CatAround 1950 B.C.E., someone painted an unusual creature on the back wall of a limestone tomb some 250 kilometers south of Cairo. With its long front legs, upright tail, and triangular head staring down an approaching field rat, it is unmistakably a domestic cat—the first appearance in the art of ancient Egypt. In the centuries that followed, cats became a fixture of Egyptian paintings and sculptures, and were even immortalized as mummies, as they rose in status from rodent killer to pet to god. Historians took all this as evidence that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate the feline. That is, until 2004, when researchers discovered a 9500-year-old cat buried with a human on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, revealing that cats had been living with people thousands of years before Egypt even existed. A new study could put Egypt back in the limelight. A genetic analysis of more than 200 ancient cats suggests that, even if the animals were domesticated outside Egypt, it was the Egyptians who turned them into the lovable fur balls we know today. It’s even possible they domesticated cats a second time. “It’s a very nice piece of work,” says Salima Ikram, an expert on ancient Egyptian animals and cat mummies at American University in Cairo. The idea that the Egyptians helped shape the modern cat, she says, “makes perfect sense.”

…“The Egyptians were the first people to have the resources to do everything bigger and better,” says Carlos Driscoll, the World Wildlife Fund chair in conservation genetics at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, who led the 2007 study. That ability may have extended to breeding cats. As the Egyptians bred more and more felines, Driscoll speculates, they would have selected for the ones that were easiest to have around—more social and less territorial than their predecessors. “They turbocharged the tameness process.” Egypt’s art reflects this dramatic transformation. The earliest representations of cats depict a working animal, like the rat hunter in the limestone tomb. But over the centuries the felines begin to appear in more domestic contexts, hunting birds with people, wearing collars, and—by 1500 B.C.E.—sitting under chairs at the dinner table. “They go from being a slaughterer of mice to a couch potato,” says Eva Maria-Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist who oversaw the study with molecular biologist Thierry Grange, both at the Jacques Monod Institute in Paris.

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