The history of the world according to cats by Eva-Maria Geigl (TED ed). On May 27th, 1941, the German battleship Bismarck sank in a fierce firefight, leaving only 118 of her 2,200 crew members alive.
But when a British destroyer came to collect the prisoners, they found an unexpected survivor – a black and white cat clinging to a floating plank. For the next several months this cat hunted rats and raised British morale – until a sudden torpedo strike shattered the hull and sank the ship.
But, miraculously, not the cat. Nicknamed Unsinkable Sam, he rode to Gibraltar with the rescued crew and served as a ship cat on three more vessels – one of which also sank – before retiring to the Belfast Home for Sailors. Many may not think of cats as serviceable sailors, or cooperative companions of any kind.
But cats have been working alongside humans for thousands of years – helping us just as often as we help them. So how did these solitary creatures go from wild predator to naval officer to sofa sidekick? The domestication of the modern house cat can be traced back to more than 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, at the start of the Neolithic era.
People were learning to bend nature to their will, producing much more food than farmers could eat at one time. These Neolithic farmers stored their excess grain in large pits and short, clay silos. But these stores of food attracted hordes of rodents, as well as their predator, Felis silvestris lybica – the wildcat found across North Africa and Southwest Asia.
These wildcats were fast, fierce, carnivorous hunters. And they were remarkably similar in size and appearance to today’s domestic cats. The main differences being that ancient wildcats were more muscular, had striped coats, and were less social towards other cats and humans. The abundance of prey in rodent-infested granaries drew in these typically solitary animals.
And as the wildcats learned to tolerate the presence of humans and other cats during mealtime, we think that farmers likewise tolerated the cats in exchange for free pest control. The relationship was so beneficial that the cats migrated with Neolithic farmers from Anatolia into Europe and the Mediterranean.
Vermin were a major scourge of the seven seas. They ate provisions and gnawed at lines of rope, so cats had long since become essential sailing companions. Around the same time these Anatolian globe trotting cats set sail, the Egyptians domesticated their own local cats.
Revered for their ability to dispatch venomous snakes, catch birds, and kill rats, domestic cats became important to Egyptian religious culture. They gained immortality in frescos, hieroglyphs, statues, and even tombs, mummified alongside their owners. Egyptian ship cats cruised the Nile, holding poisonous river snakes at bay.
And after graduating to larger vessels, they too began to migrate from port to port. During the time of the Roman Empire, ships traveling between India and Egypt carried the lineage of the central Asian wildcat F. s. ornata. Centuries later, in the Middle Ages, Egyptian cats voyaged up to the Baltic Sea on the ships of Viking seafarers.
And both the Near Eastern and North African wildcats – probably tamed at this point — continued to travel across Europe, eventually setting sail for Australia and the Americas. Today, most house cats have descended from either the Near Eastern or the Egyptian lineage of F.s.lybica.
But close analysis of the genomes and coat patterns of modern cats tells us that unlike dogs, which have undergone centuries of selective breeding, modern cats are genetically very similar to ancient cats.
And apart from making them more social and docile, we’ve done little to alter their natural behaviors. In other words, cats today are more or less as they’ve always been: Wild animals. Fierce hunters. Creatures that don’t see us as their keepers. And given our long history together, they might not be wrong.
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Credit: Eva-Maria Geigl