The history of the world according to cats – Eva-Maria Geigl


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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