By STEVEN WISHNIA
For a long time, people believed the ancient Egyptians were the first people to domesticate cats. They originally thought this had happened about 3,600 years ago, but scientists have now learned that cats have been living with people for nearly 10,000 years.
In 2004, French archaeologists announced the discovery of a 9,500-year-old cat skeleton, in a grave in Cyprus, buried next to a person. As Cyprus is an island, people must have brought cats there. Archaeologists have also found a 9,000-year-old cat tooth in Israel.
DNA analysis published in 2007 found that domestic cats are descended from the Middle Eastern wildcat. These wild cats look like tiger-striped domestic cats, but with longer legs, and live in North Africa and the Middle East, including: Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Yemen, Iran, and Uzbekistan.
Why did humans adopt cats? They can’t be used for work like other animals. They can’t help hunt or guard like dogs. They can’t be ridden like horses. They can’t pull things like donkeys.
The joke that “people didn’t adopt cats, cats adopted people” is probably true, scientists say. “Cats most likely chose to live among humans,” four zoologists wrote in Scientific American magazine in 2009. Their theory is that when people started farming and storing food, it attracted mice. Mouse skeletons have been found among the first known human stores of grain, at a 10,000-year-old site in Israel.
Scientists believe that wildcats came around those grain storehouses to get at those mice. People didn’t mind, because the cats were catching the mice that were stealing their food. And the cuter and friendlier the cats were, the more likely it was that people would let them stick around.