Silk Road Cat Pushes Back Central Asia Domestication to 8th-century AD
Archaeologists have found the well-preserved remains of a Silk Road cat buried in Kazakhstan that likely dates from the 8th century AD, and the evidence suggests this was a “well-loved pet cat.” In a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports by Dr. Ashleigh Haruda from the Central Natural Science Collections at Germany’s Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, she provides compelling evidence about the life of this ancient Silk Road cat, a male, which was fed by the people it lived near and “nursed back to health by his nomadic cattle-herding owners after getting injured.”
Today, an estimated 600 million cats share homes with their human servants and a 2007 report stated that about 37 million US households owned cats, with an average of 2.2 cats per household for a total US cat population of around 82 million. For comparison, there are about 72 million pet dogs in the USA.
But among the billions of cats who lived and died through history, this recently discovered Silk Road cat stands out as an important domesticated feline breakthrough. The discovered ancient cat’s skeleton was well preserved and for that reason, the university researchers were able to gather considerable evidence to prove the cat had a “high-protein diet and was well-cared for” and that cats were likely first domesticated in Central Asia much earlier than previously thought.
The cat's remains were found during an excavation in the settlement of Dhzankent in Kazakhstan. (Ashleigh Haruda / MLU)
How the Silk Road Cat Changes Central Asian Pet History
The Silk Road cat’s remains were found at an excavation in Dzhankent, a medieval settlement in the south of Kazakhstan which was historically populated by the hardy Oghuz people, a pastoralist Turkic tribe. The cat’s skeleton was recovered from a remote location and is described as an “anomaly in archaeology” because when animals die, normally only a few bones are discovered around the carcass, the rest destroyed by scavengers and long-term exposure to the elements.
The new paper says the practice of keeping cats as pets in Central Asia dates back further than previously thought. Based on evidence from this ancient Silk Road culture, domestic cats were kept as pets by nomadic livestock herders more than 1,000 years ago. The Silk Road cat skeleton included its lower jaw, parts of its upper body, all four legs and four vertebrae. And based on the analysis of these bones the researchers were able to confidently claim the cat was “well cared for.”
The Snow Leopard is the national animal of Kazakhstan where the Silk Road cat was found (The National Bank of Kazakhstan / Public domain)
The paper claims this particular ancient cat, which dined on a diet rich in protein indicating it had been regularly fed by humans, provides “the earliest evidence” of a domesticated cat in Central Asia, a region thought to have been slow in making changes with respect to agriculture and animal husbandry.
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Bone and Protein Analysis Confirms That This Cat Was Special
Using 3D scans and X-ray analysis, the study showed how the cat had suffered broken bones that healed, indicating it had been cared for and nursed by people, despite the creature serving no practical use to the nomadic people who kept it. Moreover, it was intentionally put in the ground and buried rather than discarded. And according to a report in the Daily Mail this particular aspect of the discovery “surprised” the researchers who thought it remarkable to find cats being kept as pets around the 8th century AD. Until now it had been assumed cats were domesticated at a much later date in Central Asia.
At a molecular level, isotope analyses provided information about the cat's diet. When the cat’s results were compared to the remains of dogs at the same site it was clear that the cat ‘s diet was “very high in protein.” This, said Dr. Harud, means the cat must have been fed by humans, which is also evident in that the cat lost almost all its teeth towards the end of its life but was still fed.
DNA analyses also revealed that the Silk-Road cat was of the Felis catus L. species and not a member of the closely related wild steppe cat. Dr Haruda said the Oghuz were people who “only kept animals when they were essential to their lives.” However, because this cat had no obvious practical use, the scientists concluded that people at the time “kept and cared for such exotic animals” and determined this find marks a significant cultural change that occurred much earlier in Central Asia than previously thought.
Top image: The remains of the cat fund in Kazakhstan. Source: Ashleigh Haruda / MLU
By Ashley Cowie