The First Feline. Tracing the Origins of the Domestic Cat


The origins of the domestic cat remain mysterious, but recent research provides some clues about where and when wildcats first began the path to becoming house cats. While a few scholars once believed cats were first fully domesticated in ancient Egypt around 4,000 years ago, genetic evidence points to a longer, more gradual process of domestication beginning in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. So where did the first proto-house cats come from, and how did they go from wild hunter to pampered pet? While the details are still emerging, archaeological and genetic research is beginning to piece together the story of the first cats to live with humans.

Theories on cat domestication

There are two primary theories on when and where cats first became domesticated. The traditional view holds that cats were first domesticated in the Near East around 10,000 years ago. This is based on evidence such as cat remains and depictions found in ancient Egypt dating back over 4,000 years. Some genetic evidence also points to the Near East as the origin location for today’s domestic cats (Source).

However, in recent years an alternate theory has emerged that domestic cats first appeared in China around 5,000 years ago. This is supported by genetic analysis of Chinese cats showing greater diversity compared to other regions, suggesting they may be closer descendants of ancient wildcats. Archaeological discoveries in China of cat remains buried alongside humans dating back over 5,500 years have also given weight to this theory (Source). While debated, most experts agree cats were likely first domesticated thousands of years ago in the Near East or China.

Genetic evidence

Genetic studies of modern house cats point to ancestors originating in the Fertile Crescent region of the Near East, which includes parts of what is now Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and southeastern Turkey. In one study published in Nature, researchers analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of randomly bred cats and found that the mitochondrial lineages clustered in or around this region (Nilson, 2022).

Another study that looked at mitochondrial DNA from nearly 1000 cats found that the majority of lineages traced back to only five ancestral matrilines that were present in the Fertile Crescent between 8,000-10,000 years ago (Driscoll et al., 2009). This evidence supports the theory that cat domestication began when wildcats in the Fertile Crescent started commensally living near human settlements to prey on rodents. Genetic analysis indicates that cats were then transported by humans from this region to other parts of the world, giving rise to modern domestic cat populations.

Archaeological evidence

The earliest archaeological evidence of cats living alongside humans dates back approximately 9,500 years ago to the island of Cyprus. Excavations at the Neolithic village of Shillourokambos uncovered a cat burial site containing a human skeleton with a young wildcat buried nearby ( This finding indicates cats had a special relationship with humans even before domestication began.

In ancient Egypt, archaeological discoveries show cats were domesticated as early as 4,000 years ago. Egyptian art depicts images of cats, including collars placed around their necks indicating they were tamed house pets. Mummified cats and elaborate cat burial sites also provide evidence of the Egyptians’ high regard for cats (

The oldest known evidence confirming domesticated cats living with humans was found in China, dating back 5,300 years. This includes cat remains among household waste and pottery with cat paw prints (

Cats in ancient Egypt

Cats gained great cultural significance and reverence in ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians domesticated cats as early as 4,000 years ago and worshipped feline deities like Bastet and Mafdet. Cats held an important place in Egyptian society and mythology. They were seen as protective, graceful, and noble. Egyptians believed cats were magical creatures capable of bringing good fortune to the households that took them in. Cats were so special that harming or killing a cat was a crime punishable by death. When cats died, their bodies were mummified and buried in sacred cat cemeteries. The goddess Bastet had the head of a cat and was associated with protection, fertility, music, dance and pleasure. Reverence for cats rose during the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom between 1550 BCE to 1070 BCE. The growth of agricultural society led to grain storage and a need for rodent control, a role ideal for domestic cats. Cats became protectors of crops and food stores and guarded Egyptians from disease. Over time, cats became associated with divinity, wisdom, and protection.

Spread of the domestic cat

Trade routes and human migration spread cats globally. Cats likely first spread to other parts of the world through maritime trade routes, as cats were popular on ships for rodent control. Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats and as their culture spread through trade and conquest, so did their cats. Researchers analyzed cat remains from Viking sites and found cats accompanied Norse voyages as early as 1000 CE. Genetic studies show present day European cats descended from Near Eastern wildcats. As Europeans explored and colonized other continents, domestic cats went with them. Studies found descendants of western European cats in the Caribbean and South Africa by the 1600s and Australia by the 1700s.

Theories on how cats were domesticated

There are two main theories on how cats became domesticated: self-domestication and human taming. The self-domestication theory states that cats essentially domesticated themselves by adapting to take advantage of the new niche created when early agricultural societies began storing grain, which attracted rodents. Cats that were less afraid of humans had an advantage over wilder cats in accessing this new food source. Over time, adaptation led to the domestic cat populations we see today. Supporters of this theory point to evidence that cats underwent few genetic or phenotypic changes during domestication, unlike other domesticated animals such as dogs. One key proponent of the self-domestication theory is Carlos Driscoll, who has published research on the genetic history of domestic cats.

The opposing view holds that cats were actively tamed and bred by early humans to control pests. There is archaeological evidence of cat remains buried alongside humans dating back 9,500 years ago in Cyprus (ICatCare, 2018). Ancient Egyptian art also depicts cats being kept and bred by humans. Supporters of this theory argue it is unlikely cats would have self-domesticated so uniformly across different regions without human influence. While the debate continues, it’s likely both natural adaptation and selective breeding played a role in cats’ long history with humans.

Modern domestic cats

All modern domestic cats are descendants of the African wildcat (The Natural History of Domestic Cats). Genetic analysis indicates that the Felis silvestris lybica subspecies from the Near East was probably the main ancestor of today’s house cats around 10,000 years ago (How did cats become domesticated?). These cats had a more docile and social temperament that allowed them to adapt to living around humans. As early farmers stored grain, it attracted rodents, which in turn attracted wild cats that were willing to live near people to hunt the rodents. This mutualistic relationship led to the early domestication of cats.

Over time, humans began to appreciate cats for controlling pests. Cats were later prized for their companionship and abilities as hunters. Ancient Egyptians domesticated African wildcats around 4,000 years ago, raising them and worshipping feline deities. As cats spread via trade routes to Europe and beyond, their popularity as pets and hunters grew. Today, the descendants of those early African wildcats live in homes across the world.

Remaining mysteries

There are still many unanswered questions about the early domestication of cats due to gaps in the archaeological record and the need for more genetic analysis. The timeframe and location for the initial domestication of cats is still debated by researchers. More ancient cat remains need to be discovered and genetically tested to pinpoint the evolutionary split between wildcats and domestic cats. There is also a lack of genetic data on cat remains from key regions like ancient Egypt, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and the Fertile Crescent where cats may have first been domesticated by humans. Understanding how the genomes of early domestic cats differed from wildcats could reveal crucial insights about the domestication process. Additionally, more research is needed to determine how certain cat breeds originated and spread to other parts of the world. Tracing the genetic mutations for coat colors and body types could illuminate how cats were bred by early civilizations. While much progress has been made, the full story of cat domestication remains an intriguing mystery awaiting more archaeological discoveries and genetic breakthroughs.


The origin of the domestic cat remains a mystery archaeologists and biologists continue to study. Based on genetic and archaeological evidence, cats were likely first domesticated in the Near East around 10,000 years ago. Ancient Egypt saw the rise of cats to revered status, evidenced by cat mummies and depictions in Egyptian art. From Egypt, domestic cats spread slowly across the ancient world as valuable pest control and beloved pets. While the African wildcat is the likely ancestor of house cats, details are still debated on precisely when, where and how cats transitioned from wild predators to domestic companions curled up by the fireplace. What is clear is the modern house cat shares a special bond with humans that stretches back thousands of years before cat memes, viral videos, and Instagram accounts. Though much has been learned, more discoveries await to fill in the missing pieces about the early domestication of the beloved felines we know today.

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