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Chinese May Have Loved Cats before Ancient Egyptians

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The Egyptians are well known for their love of cats .  Not only were they praised for controlling vermin and snakes, but the cat was a symbol of grace and poise.  The goddess Mafdet, the deification of justice and execution, was a lion-headed goddess. The cat goddess Bast (also known as Bastet) eventually replaced the cult of Mafdet.  As cats were sacred , the practice of mummification was extended to them, and the respect that cats received after death mirrored the respect with which they were treated in everyday life. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that when a cat died, the household would go into mourning as if for a human relative, and would often shave their eyebrows to signify their loss.  Such was the strength of feeling towards cats that killing one, even accidentally, incurred the death penalty. 

There is no common agreement among researchers and archaeologists as to just where and when the domesticated cat originated.  However, a new study has revealed that humans were connected with cats at least 5,300 years in China. 

Archaeologists found that the village of Quanhucun, an ancient Neolithic agricultural village in Shaanxi Province, was a source of food for the cats 5,300 years ago, probably rodents that feasted on the grains grown, stored and eaten by the ancient Chinese farmers. 

“The relationship between humans and cats was commensal, or advantageous for the cats,” said the study’s co-author Fiona Marshall, a professor of archaeology at Washington University in St. Louis. “Even if these cats were not yet domesticated, our evidence confirms that they lived in close proximity to farmers, and that the relationship had mutual benefits.”

One of the cats found during their archaeological dig was old when it died, which indicated that it lived well and flourished while living in the village. The researchers also said that the remains of the ancient cats they studied showed signs that they didn’t eat too many animals and ate more millet than was expected. This suggested to the researchers that the cats either scavenged for human food or were fed by their human neighbours.

The Near Eastern Wildcat, native to Western Asia and Africa, is believed to be the primary ancestor of all domestic cats now living around the globe.   “We do not yet know whether these cats came to China from the Near East, whether they interbred with Chinese wild-cat species, or even whether cats from China played a previously unsuspected role in domestication,” Marshall said.

Scientists have long thought cats were first domesticated in ancient Egypt around 4,000 years ago. However, the close relationship between cats and humans may have taken root much earlier.  In 2004, scientists discovered a wild cat had been buried with a human nearly 9,500 years ago in Cyprus. Other evidence suggests that cats were domesticated in Mesopotamia as early as 12,500 BC, about the same time as dogs, sheep, and goats.

Cats have endeared themselves to many cultures for their helpful mouse-hunting skills, cleanliness, attitude, and beauty. As an inscription in the Valley of the Kings states;

"You are the Great Cat, the avenger of the gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; you are indeed the Great Cat."

By April Holloway

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