The carnivore ancestors

Presumably the dinosaurs died out around 65 million years ago (give or take a year), and the age of the mammals began. The earliest mammals were known as creodonts, and they apparently lived on fish and were small, not more than a foot tall at the shoulder. So far as we can tell, the creodonts were the distant ancestors of all the carnivores, including the cat ancestor Miacis.

The infamous saber-tooths

Granted, they were much larger than today’s house cats, but in some way the ferocious saber-tooth cats are among the ancestors of today’s pets (or, at any rate, of cats in general). The sabertoothed tiger (Smilodon is the scientific name) lived in Europe, Africa, Asia and North America 35 million years ago. With its huge daggerlike teeth, it could bring down an elephant. Scientists think these cats’ combination of large body and small brain ensured they would not last forever. (An interesting tidbit: before the U.S. president Thomas Jefferson sent the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the American West, it was widely assumed that creatures like saber-toothed tigers still existed in the wilds of America.)

The in-between phase

After  Pseudaelurus, there was  Felis lunensis, which lived in Europe around 12 million years ago. This species was smaller than  Pseudaelurus though still larger than today’s house cat. Scientists assume that it had a fairly thick coat and the markings of a tabby cat.

Roaring and non-roaring

The cat family, Felidae, is divided into two genera, Felis and Panthera. Roughly speaking, the Felis cats are the small ones; the Panthera cats are the biggies. But more technically, the Felis cats do not roar (though they can purr), while the Panthera cats do roar (but can’t purr). Needless to say, your pet belongs to the Felis genus. Aside from the roar-purr divide, however, the members of Felidae are amazingly alike in shape and overall behavior, and there’s no doubt that one of the great attractions of cats as pets is that they remind us so much of graceful and powerful lions, tigers and leopards.

Everywhere but Australia

Australia is a unique continent, notably because it is really just a large island, and its isolation from other land masses has resulted in wildlife very unlike the other continents. You probably are aware that many of its mammals are marsupials, mammals that carry their young in pouches. Many of these animals, such as the kangaroos and koalas, are not carnivorous, but there are plenty of carnivorous marsupials. They fill the ecological niche that on other continents is filled by cats. There were no true cats in Australia until the Europeans settled there, and the vicious marsupial “tiger cat” of eastern Australia is not a true cat.

“Cats,” but not really

Various animals go by “cat” names but aren’t related to cats at all. Skunks are sometimes called “polecats,” while in Europe the “polecat” is a creature related to the weasel, but neither “polecat” is a true cat. Civets and genets are animals related to the mongooses, and you will hear people speak of “genet cats” and “civet cats,” but neither is a cat belonging to the family Felidae.

Silvestris, still around

As already noted, today’s domestic cat probably descended from Felis silvestris, and the wild silvestris is still very much alive. The various sub-species are described in this section. All of them look a lot like our house pet cats, but, as you will see, their capacity for being tamed varies greatly. Worth noting: all the silvestris wildcats possess larger brains than those of domestic cats.

The Spanish wildcat

Felis silvestris iberia, resembles the Scottish wildcat but its coat is darker. Like its Scottish cousin, it has a heavier build than most house cats. Its attractively striped coat led to its being hunted by fur trappers, a fate that has befallen many wildcats over the centuries.

The African wildcat

Felis silvestris lybica ranges over much of Africa but it has become rare. It is grayish-brown in color and has distinctive striping on the legs. Like the other silvestris wildcats, its eyes are yellow, never green. If reared in captivity, the African wildcat can become tame.

Can Felis silvestris mate with Felis catus?

The answer is yes, but you probably would not like the results. This is especially true of cases where a European wildcat tom impregnated a domestic female. European wildcats fear and distrust humans, so any off-spring of a European wildcat will quickly manifest its wildness, either by fleeing the human home or becoming so obnoxious that the humans will gladly set it free.

Pet otter?

While Native Americans did not have Felis catus house cats before Columbus arrived, there is some evidence that they had tamed a native cat called the jaguarundi. This long-bodied brown cat is still found from Arizona to Argentina. Its lanky body and otterlike head have led to its being called the “weasel cat” or “otter cat.” Pre-Columbus, the native peoples of South America tamed it and used it to kill rodents. Whether they really made a pet of it and doted on it the way Europeans and Asians doted on their house cats is not known.

Little spotty

Ocelots are about four feet long, and their close relative the margay (Felis wiedi) is a sort of mini-ocelot, only about two feet long, tail included. In other words, this beautiful spotted creature is only slightly larger than a house cat. It ranges from Mexico to Argentina, and it is still occasionally seen in southern Texas.

High-altitude American

The mountain cat (Felis jacobita), true to its name, lives high in the Andes Mountains, sometimes as high as 16,000 feet above sea level. High altitude means cold nights, so this grayish cat has dense shaggy fur. The tail’s wide stripes make it look like a raccoon’s tail. It is only slightly larger than a house cat.

The crab-eater

The Iriomote cat was not discovered until 1967, and it’s no wonder, for only a few survive on the small Japanese island of Iriomote. The small cat hunts by night, stalking birds and small mammals, and it also ventures to the water’s edge to catch crabs.

Distinctive and tamable

The caracal (Felis caracal), sometimes called the Persian lynx, is found over much of Asia and Africa, where it preys on gazelles, small deer and birds. No other cat quite resembles it, thanks to the long black tufts of hair on each ear. The beautiful reddish brown cat, somewhat larger than a fox, can be tamed, and in some regions it has been trained to hunt small antelopes and deer.

The big guy, Leo

The lion (Panthera leo) isn’t the largest cat (tigers are larger), but he has probably made the deepest impression on humans, partly because the male’s large mane does give it a “kingly” look. Lions once ranged over not only Africa but also Europe and Asia, but today they are found only in Africa and a small section of India. The lion is the only social cat, living in small groups called prides that are composed mostly of related females and one dominant male.

Panther, but really a leopard

The beautiful black panther found in much of Asia is in reality a color morph of the leopard. The base color of the hairs is black, and so are the spots, so the panther gives the overall appearance of being jet black. In fact, you can see the spots clearly at certain angles.

The tame one

Cheetahs, as already noted, are distinctive cats, most notably in that they have been tamed (more or less) and trained as hunting animals. Ranging over Africa and much of Asia, cheetahs were long ago tamed in India. Hunters would take them blindfolded to the hunting site and release them when the prey was sighted. Aside from the domestic cat and the caracal, the cheetah is the only cat to be truly tamed by man. Incidentally, cheetahs, since they are spotted, were often referred to in the past as “hunting leopards,” and it was believed (wrongly) that they were hybrids of lions and leopards.

The biggest

The tiger (Panthera tigris), the largest cat in the world, lives only in Asia. All tigers are striped, and though we assume they are all orangey in color, their color varies widely depending on location. Tigers in Russia and northern China are very light in color, and some are almost white. A male tiger may weigh up to five hundred pounds and stand five feet tall at the shoulders. Tigers do not have the beautiful manes that male lions possess, but older male tigers do have long spreading hairs on their cheeks. Tigers are good swimmers, but unlike most cats, they seldom climb trees.

The Sunshine State cat

The official state animal of Florida is the very rare Florida panther. Scientists debate whether the panther is a subspecies of the cougar (see 437) or a separate species. The Florida panther certainly has a distinctive look, for although it generally looks like a cougar, it has a kinked tail, white spots and a distinctive swirl of fur in the middle of its back.

Cat mummies

As you know, the ancient Egyptians mummified the human dead. They thought so highly of cats that they mummified them too—or, at least, upper-class Egyptians could afford to do so. Since the Egyptians believed that the afterlife was essentially like earthly life, they mummified mice to place in the tombs as food for the cat mummies. In 1890, over 300,000 cat mummies were found at one site in Egypt. Most were in cases of engraved wood, with the bodies wrapped in colored bandages. The world’s museums display cat mummies along with the human mummies.

Did the Egyptians really worship cats?

They were accused of it by (of course) non-Egyptians, and there is plenty of evidence that they really did worship cats, since we have paintings and carvings that show priests bowing to cats, making offerings to cats and, in general, treating the creatures as if they were indeed gods. Religion experts make fine distinctions between “venerating” and “worshipping,” but the average human being doesn’t, in mind or heart, grasp such distinctions. About all we can say for certain is that the ancient Egyptians truly adored cats as they did no other animal.

The old cat-woman dog-man cliché

The world has changed a lot, but one old cliché still lingers: women like cats, men like dogs. We all know exceptions to these stereotypes, but we all also know there is a bit of truth to them. The cliché goes back centuries, even to the very starting place of domestic cats: ancient Egypt.

Tomb paintings of wealthy Egyptians have often shown the happy family at home, with a cat sitting under the wife’s chair, a dog under her husband’s chair. We can safely assume that husband and wife played with each other’s pets, of course, but the stereotype is still there: cats for the women, dogs for the men.

Cat-head and lion-head

Among the Egyptians’ various goddesses was Sekhmet, who had a lion’s head on a woman’s body, and thus was not too different in appearance from Bast, another goddess. Bast was sometimes called the Lady of the East (meaning the east side of the Nile River), while Sekhmet was the Lady of the West. Over time the two similar goddesses were thought to be one and the same, both regarded as symbols of fertility, motherhood, hearth and home.

Ancient Egyptian humor

In ancient Egyptian art, cats are depicted as sacred or as beloved pets of the household—but not always. Humans have always had a sense of humor, even in ancient times. There survives from ancient Egypt, land of the sacred cat, a drawing on papyrus dating from about 1150 B.C., showing a large lady mouse and her brood, being waited on by a bevy of cat servants.

Deep mourning

People grieve when they lose a pet today, but perhaps not as ostentatiously as the ancient Egyptians did when a pet cat died. The whole family would go into mourning and, as an obvious outward sign of grief, shave off their eyebrows.

The oldest cat art

Precisely when the ancient Egyptians began domesticating cats is in dispute, but the oldest artwork depicting a cat dates from around 1950 B.C. Found at Beni Hasan, this wall painting shows a cat crouching beneath a woman’s chair. Roughly about this same time, cat figures began to appear in hieroglyphics, the Egyptians’ form of picture writing.

Snake hunters

One thing that is often forgotten in histories of the cat is that cats were snake killers as well as rodent killers. Various types of poisonous snakes live in Egypt, notably the infamous asp (the species Cleopatra used to kill herself). True, a venomous snake can kill a cat as well as a human, but it appears that the ancient Egyptians learned quickly that cats’ claws, teeth and swift reflexes made them competent snake killers. And, obviously, the cat’s sensitive hearing and sight made them watchful for snakes entering human habitations.

The cat charm

Egyptians, like people everywhere, had certain symbols and figures they liked to wear as charms or amulets. One that was commonly worn was the utchat, the “sacred eye.” It consisted of one large stylized eye, with several small cat figures engraved around it. The connection between cats and eyes was obvious enough, for the Egyptian word for cat, mau, not only was the sound made by cats, but also meant “to see.”

Sacred and four-legged

Travelers to ancient Egypt got the impression that the Egyptians literally worshipped cats. Did they? Aside from the love they showed to their own pets, they did have an even higher respect for “temple animals,” the animals kept at the temples of the Egyptians’ many gods, one of whom was Bast, the goddess with the woman’s body and cat’s head. The temples of Bast had, naturally, cats on the premises, and they were worshipped—or, more accurately, they were honored as the earthly representatives of Bast herself. Bast herself was far away in heaven, but humans could honor her—and definitely did—in the form of the temple cats.

Cats in dreams

Styles change—not only in clothes and furniture, but even in dream interpretation. In the twentieth century, it became trendy to believe that dreaming about a cat meant you were dreaming about sex. Not so in ancient Egypt. If you dreamed about a cat, it was a good omen but not related to sex. It was a sign of prosperity to come—specifically, a good harvest. This makes perfect sense: cats were the exterminators of rodents, which were always a threat to human food supplies, especially grains. If you dreamed of a cat, it meant your harvest—and thus your fortune—was in good hands (or good paws).

Ra, the Great Tomcat

You might already know that Ra is the name of the Egyptian sun god. (Or, at least, one of the sun gods, since the Egyptians had so many gods that their mythology was hopelessly confused.) In a myth dating around 1500 B.C., Ra journeyed to the underworld at night in the form of a cat. There he battled the serpent Apophis, whom he slayed with a large knife, ensuring that Ra could return as the sun the following morning. Numerous paintings have been found showing Ra, the “Great Tomcat,” using a knife to slay Apophis.

Ruling from Cat City

The Egyptian pharaoh Shishak (mentioned in 2 Kings 11:40 in the Bible) ruled the country from the city of Per-Bastet, or Bubastis, a city especially sacred to the goddess Bast. In fact, the city’s name means “house of the goddess Bast.” Not surprisingly, one of the pharaohs of Shishak’s dynasty actually ruled under the name Pamiu—meaning “Tomcat,” a highly appropriate name for a ruler who expects to be protected by a cat-headed goddess.

Cats and sistrums

In the many images of the goddess Bast found in Egypt, she is often depicted holding a sistrum, a musical instrument (or, more appropriately, noisemaker) similar to a maraca. Worship in ancient times often involved a lot of ritual dancing and music, and in the worship of Bast, large groups of women would have been dancing and rattling their sistrums. The sistrums themselves were often carved with cat images.

Herodotus in Greece

The Greek historian Herodotus visited Greece in the fifth century B.C. and, happily for posterity, wrote about what he saw there. He described the worship of the cat-headed goddess Bast, whom he (and other Greeks) identified with the Greek goddess Artemis. Herodotus witnessed a Bast festival at the city of Per-Bastet, attended by some 700,000 men and women. As Herodotus describes it, the “worship” turned into a veritable orgy, with lots of wine being consumed, frequent “lifting of the skirts” and a general “girls gone wild” atmosphere—which makes sense, since cats were associated with fertility and reproduction. According to Herodotus, the Bast festival drew more people together than any other festival in Egypt.

The cat in the moon

Did you know that the ancient Egyptians associated cats with worship of the moon? The cat was sacred to the goddess Isis, who symbolized the moon. The cat too was believed to be a symbol of the moon, partly because cats are more active after dark, partly because the pupil of the cat’s eye reminded people of the waxing and waning of the moon. A cat’s pupils can change from the narrowest slits to the widest circles—exactly as the moon does.

The lynching

In ancient Egypt, as we’ve already noted, killing a cat was a capital offense. Thanks to the adoration that people felt for cats, there rarely had to be any kind of judicial trials, for the people gladly took justice into their own hands, killing an offender without waiting for the slow wheels of the legal process. As you might imagine, this kept the killing of cats to a minimum. A person who killed a cat by accident was in an awkward situation, but he could avoid lynching by running as far as possible from the dead animal and, once someone discovered the body, joining in the loud lamentation.

Ancient images: cats, or big cats?

Imagine you are an archaeologist sorting through the items found at a dig—vases, mosaics and other items. You find images of cats—but how can you tell if these are house cats or larger wildcats like leopards and cheetahs? In some cases, you can’t tell, because of the poor condition of the object—pieces broken off, weathered by time or otherwise damaged. But one general rule helps: domestic cats did (and do) have triangular-shaped ears, while leopards, cheetahs, lions, and most other big cats have rounded ears. This is reflected in ancient art—usually. Ancient craftsmen had talent, but they weren’t always sticklers for details.

Pagan to Christian

Egypt has been a Muslim country for so long that we forget the country followed Christianity long before Islam even existed. As Christianity spread from its home in Palestine, Egypt gradually changed its religion from pagan to Christian. Old habits die hard, and some people were slow to give up worshipping their old gods, including the cat-headed Bast.

The Christian writer Clement, writing about the year A.D. 200 in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, mocked the old religion and its worship of animals and animal-headed gods. He wrote of the huge temples, each with an inner sanctum, and in that inner sanctum, curled on a purple cushion was . . . an animal, often a cat. Clement, like many Christian writers, claimed that Christians were wiser in worshipping their invisible God than pagans, who were fools to build a temple to honor a cat or crocodile.

Crossing to Europe

How did cats get to Europe? Historians think that the ancient Greeks learned about cats through their trade with Egypt. The Greeks were pleased to see that Egyptians had found a perfect rodent exterminator, and an attractive, clean companion to boot. To the Greeks’ dismay, the Egyptians had no interest in sharing cats with the rest of the world, so the Greeks did the obvious thing and stole several pairs and took them home to become the ancestors of Europe’s cats.

Bosomy and catty

The temple of the goddess Artemis in the city of Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Artemis, as already noted, was a virgin goddess—but also a fertility goddess. You can see the fertility aspect clearly in some of her statues found at Ephesus, where she is depicted having dozens of breasts. Some of these images show her body engraved with images of cats, and the cats themselves bear large (and very human-shaped) breasts.

Greeks go Italian

The ancient Greeks were a seafaring people, they acquired cats through trading with Egypt. As Greeks traveled, they took their cats with them, including to their colonies in southern Italy. Archaeologists have found coins in that region, dating from around 750 B.C., showing a man (the colony’s founder) seated in a chair, while a cat on hind legs plays with something in the man’s hand. Another coin from about the same period shows a man with a cat seated behind him.

Etruscan cat decor

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a bowl dating from the sixth century B.C. that was produced by Etruscans who dwelled in Italy. We can safely assume that Etruscans not only had cats but were very fond of them, for the bowl’s rim is decorated with the carvings of four cat heads.

Roman tomcats

The ancient Romans have a well-deserved reputation for their lax sexual morals, which is evident in their literature. The dramatist Plautus (circa 251–184 B.C.) wrote numerous comedies, and some of them deal very bluntly with sexual themes. Some of his plays, written in Latin, use the term feles virginaria. Translated literally, this means “cat of the virgins,” but Plautus used a different meaning, “cat who preys on virgins”—that is, “tomcat,” the human male seducer of women. Other Roman plays refer to a man who is a feles pullaria, “cat of young women,” which, again, refers to the seductive male human.

From ancient Pompeii to today

Some things never change. If you have a birdbath in your yard, you’ve no doubt seen your cat hungrily eye the birds in it and probably try to climb it. (A good birdbath is unclimbable, of course.) Archaeologists have dug up a similar scene from Pompeii, the Italian city famously destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius. A mosaic from the ruins of Pompeii, dating from about the year A.D. 79, shows a spotted cat eyeing three long-tailed birds in a bird-bath.

Pet name “Kitten”

You might recall the adorable daughter nicknamed “Kitten” on the old TV sitcom Father Knows Best. Well, “Kitten” was around as a pet name for a girl long before television. Among ancient Romans, the Latin names Felicla and Felicula were popular among women, and both names mean “little cat” or “kitten.” There are tombstones with Felicla or Felicula carved in them, and some of the tombstones even have a figure of a cat carved into them. The names Catta and Cattula—both meaning “cat,” of course were also used for Roman women. And though they were more rare, the names Feliculus, Cattus and Cattius were also borne by some Roman men.

Morphing to cattus Felis

The early Romans used felis to refer to the domestic cat, but in time the word cattus replaced it. When did the change occur? We can’t be certain, but we do have a clue, since we know that by the sixth century A.D., one unit of the Pretorian Guards (the emperor’s personal bodyguards) was known as the Catti, meaning “cats.” We can assume that these soldiers did not see anything negative—certainly nothing feminine—in applying the name “cats” to them selves.

Soldiers and cats?

Yes, the Roman armies that marched through and conquered much of Europe and northern Africa carried cats with them and kept them at their forts, which has been proven by archaeologists who have dug up cat remains. While Roman men in general liked dogs, cats were useful for keeping rodents out of the soldiers’ food supplies and from gnawing on bowstrings and other leather goods. The Roman troops apparently admired the cats as predators, and perhaps they saw themselves as cats, preying on the “barbarians” as cats preyed on the troublesome rodents.

The Roman goddess Liberty

Americans were not the first people to have a Statue of Liberty. To the ancient Romans, Liberty was worshipped as a goddess. Appropriately, the goddess’s pet was the most freedom-loving animal, the cat. The goddess Liberty was often depicted holding a cup in one hand and a broken scepter in the other, with a cat lying at her feet.

Cat in the afterlife

It’s always touching to look at the grave of a child, and certainly this is true of a very ancient grave-stone found in France. Dating from around A.D. 100 (when France was the Roman province of Gaul), the gravestone has a statue of a young boy named Laetus holding a cat in his arms.

Venus and friend

Venus was, of course, the Roman goddess of love, though it might be more accurate to call her the goddess of erotic love—or maybe just the goddess of lust. At any rate, paintings and statues of Venus sometimes depict her with a cat, and perhaps the Romans fancied that Venus was herself somewhat like a cat—cuddly and adorable at times, but aloof at others, and even occasionally fierce and vicious. In short, predictably unpredictable, as love is, and as cats are.
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