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While it is commonly recognized that cats have been highly regarded and even worshiped as far back as the ancient Egyptian era, French archaeologists, lead by Jean-Denis Vigne of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, discovered evidence that domestication of cats dates back at least 4,000 years earlier than the ancient Egyptian era. On the discovery of a 9,500-year-old burial plot in the Neolithic village of Shillourokambos on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, they found human remains buried together with decorative artifacts, flint tools, polished stones, seashells and the carefully and thoughtfully interred remains of a cat. Other cat remains, not directly linked to the grave sites of humans also reveal that cats were, at the very least, associated with early Neolithic settlements on the island. These cats would have been drawn to the settlements due to their stores of grains, which would have attracted rats and mice for them to prey upon.
Evidencing Deliberate Burial with Human
The team of archaeologists determined that the human and the cat were deliberately buried together due to a combination of factors, including the excellent state of preservation of both the human and cat remains, the thoughtful treatment of the cat remains, the remains of the entire cat that showed no signs of butchery, and the close proximity of the two sets of remains. Analysis of the remains has lead the team to believe that the cat was just eight-months-old at death and was possibly killed to be buried with the human. Vigne said “the first discovery of cat bones on Cyprus showed that human beings brought cats from the mainland to the islands. But we couldn’t decide if these cats were wild or tame.” He went on to say that “with this discovery, we can now decide that cats were linked with humans.”
President of the International Council for Archaeology and the Smithsonian Institution’s curator of Old World archaeology said that prior to the 2001 discovery by Vigne it had been very difficult to determine a timeline for cat domestication and that “in the absence of a collar around its neck, the deliberate interment of this animal with a human makes a strong case that cats had a special place in the daily lives, and in the afterlives, of residents of Shillourokambos.” She attributes the difficulty in accurately determining cat domestication to the fact that cats at the time were commensal domesticates, which means that although they were not raised by humans, they were attracted to human habitations, and were welcomed since they were a good form of pest control. Additionally, these cats would have been very physically similar to their wild cat counterparts, and, therefore, difficult for archaeologists to determine them as domesticated. Zeder believes that cats were imported to Cyprus as part of a gamestocking strategy, along with cattle, pigs, goats and other livestock.
In contrast to domesticated cats, the deliberate burial of dogs, together with human remains is far more common and dates back much earlier. The earliest known being those found in Israel, dating from he Natufian stage, 12,000 years ago.
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