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Paris, April 21, 2004

A tamed cat in Cyprus, more than 7,000 years B.C.

The bones of a cat were found near human bones in a grave uncovered in Cyprus, dating from 7,500 to 7,000 years B.C., during excavations carried out under the supervision of Jean Guilaine of the Collège de France (1). Jean-Denis Vigne, CNRS research director (2), showed that this was the oldest known evidence of the taming of cats. Until now, it was commonly believed that cats were domesticated by the Egyptians approximately 2,000 years B.C.

Shillourokambos site

It is generally taken for granted that cat domestication began in Egypt, with the first clear evidence dating from 2,000 years B.C. 

 

 At the end of the 1980's, the discovery of the jawbone of a cat on the island of Cyprus, at Khirokitia, in sediment from the Neolithic Age dating from more than 6,000 years B.C., had already suggested that the domestication of this species could have begun earlier and elsewhere than in Egypt.  The distance of the island of Cyprus from the continent and the absence of a local feline species during the Neolithic Age clearly implied that Neolithic populations had voluntarily introduced the animal to the island. 

 

Digs at the site of Shillourokambos, led by Jean Guilaine under the direction of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus and the French School of Athens, have recently unearthed a burial site in which a cat and a human are associated.  It dates from 7,500 to 7,000 B.C. Not only is it older by almost one thousand years than the first evidence of the presence of the cat in Cyprus, but it leaves no doubt as to the existence of a strong association between humans and cats as of that time, at least at the symbolic level. The cat buried with the human was approximately eight months old and had almost reached its adult size.  The morphology of the skeleton suggests that it was a big cat, similar to wild cats found in the Near East today. The morphological modifications of the skeleton associated with domestication are not yet visible, justifying the use of the term “tamed”, rather than “domesticated”.  “This particular relationship between humans and cats could have begun at the very beginning of agriculture, when cats were attracted into the villages because mice came to eat the stored grain”, explains Jean-Denis Vigne. 

 

The complete body of the animal was buried in a small pit at about twenty centimeters from the human grave. The animal might have been killed for the occasion. The tomb, particularly rich in offerings in comparison to other graves known from this period in Cyprus, suggests that the individual had a special social status.  In the same way, the cat buried with the dead person was undoubtedly a special animal since the other cat remains found in sediment from the same period in Shillourokambos show clear evidence of cooking and consumption. 

 

Whatever the case may be, this grave certainly bears witness to relationships between humans and cats in the 8th millennium B.C., not restricted to the material benefit of humans but also involved in spiritual links. 

 

This particularly spectacular discovery suggests that the cat was already on the way to being domesticated in the Near East as early as the 8th millennium B.C., 5,000 years earlier than previously believed for the first known associations between humans and felines. 

 

Jean-Denis Vigne obtained the Silver Medal from the CNRS in 2002 for his overall body of research, including the domestication of different species in the Mediterranean Basin. 

 

 

cat in cyprus

Casting of a cat skeleton


Notes:

(1) CNRS-EHESS, Centre d'Anthropologie, Toulouse; Collège de France, Chair of the department: Civilisations de l'Europe au Néolithique et à l'Age de Bronze, Paris.
(2) CNRS-Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

References:

Early taming of the cat in Cyprus, J.-D. Vigne, J. Guilaine, K. Debue, L. Haye & P. Gérard. Science, April 9, 2004.



Contact information:

Researcher contact:
Jean-Denis Vigne
E-mail: vigne@mnhn.fr

Contact - Département Sciences de l'Homme et de la Société:
Armelle Toulemonde
Tel: +33 (0)4 44 96 40 21
E-mail: armelle.toulemonde@cnrs-dir.fr

Press office contact:
Isabelle Tratner
Tel: +33 (0)1 44 96 49 88
E-mail: isabelle.tratner@cnrs-dir.fr


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