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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 April, 2004, 18:00 GMT 19:00 UK
Dig discovery is oldest 'pet cat'
By Paul Rincon
BBC News Online science staff

African wildcat, Ingrid Van Den Berg/Animals Animals
The cats at Shillourokambos may have been like this African wildcat
The oldest known evidence of people keeping cats as pets may have been found by archaeologists.

The discovery of a cat buried with what could be its owner in a Neolithic grave on Cyprus suggests domestication of cats had begun 9,500 years ago.

It was thought the Egyptians were first to domesticate cats, with the earliest evidence dating to 2,000-1,900 BC.

French researchers writing in Science magazine show that the process actually began much earlier than that.

The evidence comes from the Neolithic, or late stone age, village of Shillourokambos on Cyprus, which was inhabited from the 9th to the 8th millennia BC.

Cat culture

"The cat we found in the grave may have been pre-domesticated - something in between savage and domestic. Alternatively, it's possible it was really domestic," Professor Jean Guilaine, of the CNRS Centre d'Anthropologie in Toulouse, France, told BBC News Online.

Burial, Science
The cat (top) was killed to be buried together with its "master" (bottom)
"We have this situation of the person and the cat. This same situation of men and dogs are known much earlier from the Natufian culture of Israel which dates to 12-11,000 BC."

The complete cat skeleton was found about 40cm from a human burial. The similar states of preservation and positions of the burials in the ground suggest the person and the cat were buried together.

The person, who is about 30 years of age, but of unknown sex, was buried with offerings such as polished stone, axes, flint tools and ochre pigment.

Based on this the researchers argue that the person was of high status and may have had a special relationship with cats. Cats might have had religious as well as material significance to the Stone Age Cypriots, the French archaeologists add.

'Religious animal'

"It's difficult to say the cat was a religious animal but it probably played a role in the symbolic and imaginative world of these people," Professor Guilaine explained.

During the Neolithic, when agriculture was beginning to spread from the Near East, grain storage would have attracted large mice populations. So cats may have been encouraged to settle in villages to control the mice.

Shillourokambos, Science
Shillourokambos was a thriving village in the late stone age
"If this hypothesis is true, cats could have been attracted into the villages as early as there were mice. These mice in the Near East were present as early as 12,000 years ago," co-author Dr Jean-Denis Vigne, of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, told BBC News Online.

It seems the eight-month-old cat in the Cypriot burial was killed in order to be buried with the person. The skeleton shows no signs of butchering, suggesting that it was treated as an individual in death.

But burnt cat bones from a similar period at the site, attest to the fact that humans did eat the animals on certain occasions.

The cat specimen is large and best resembles the African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica), rather than present-day domestic cats.

There are no native feline species on Cyprus, so the authors presume any cats must have been introduced by humans.

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