Cats have a big role in modern culture and society. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that Americans own somewhere between 74 and 96 million cats. Funny cat videos and memes regularly circulate around the web, shared by social media users around the world. It turns out that cats have played a part in societies and cultures around the world for thousands of years. Here is a brief history of the cat and how they became the household companions they are today.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, scientists in the 1930s discovered a cat skull on the island of Cypress that dated back 8,000 years. Since the cat would have had to travel by boat to get there (wild cats aren’t native to Cypress), and it is unlikely travelers would have brought wild cats onto the ship, it’s likely that someone brought their domesticated pet cat along.
The next largest and most well known instance of cats in ancient culture is in Egypt 4,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians were one of the first agricultural societies, and it’s thought that the earliest domestic cats were related to the African wild cat. Some scientists believe that wild cats actually domesticated themselves. As humans began farming, rather than hunting and gathering their food, they became less nomadic and settled into one place. They stored their harvests, which attracted mice and other vermin. Cats were drawn to the small prey and eventually moved in for good.
The ancient Egyptians came to revere cats. Their ability to catch and dispose of mice and rats kept many diseases away and improved the usable grain supply. Cats came to represent life, and were a sacred animal worshiped by the Egyptians.
Cats from ancient Egypt were eventually sold to the Greeks and people in the Near East. They eventually made their way to the Chinese Empire as a gift for the emperor. They became popular household pets in China, India, and Japan.
Demons of the Middle Ages
After thousands of years of being worshipped and revered in Egypt, China, and even ancient Rome, the perception of the cat in Europe shifted during the Middle Ages. They were widely associated with witchcraft and the devil, and many cats were killed to rid towns and cities of their evil.
Cats were thought by some at the time as the culprit of the Black Death that killed nearly fifty percent of the population across Europe. Ironically, some scientists and historians believe this drastic eradication of cats helped the spread of the deadly plague. Without cats to kill disease-carrying rats, disease and illness ran rampant.
When explorers came to the Americas looking for gold and spices, sailors took cats aboard their ships to control vermin. As cats came to the New World, their image as evil creatures began to wane, and their popularity has been steadily rising ever since.
Now, tens of millions of cats all over the world live happily with humans. Cats appear in books, comic strips, TV shows, movies, viral videos, and memes. The Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is one of the book’s most famous and endearing characters. Garfield and Heathcliff are the starts of their own comic strips, the former of which has been spun off into multiple movies. Grumpy cat is well known and loved across the Internet for her seemly permanent grumpy expression.