Prehistoric Cat Lovers; Our Love Affair with Felines May Date to the First Farmers

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Byline: Temma Ehrenfeld

Among the many accomplishments of ancient Egypt, the domestication of cats surely ranks as one of the most important--at least to cat lovers. These slinky little predators came in handy for controlling the mice and rats that ravaged grain stores, but they also stole Egyptian hearts. Often, when a beloved cat died, it was mummified and interred on temple grounds. Grief-stricken owners shaved off their eyebrows and left small bowls of milk and toys at the grave so the cat could drink and play in the other world. To this day, the cats of Cairo are many and adored.

New archeological findings now suggest that the Egyptians weren't the original cat tamers after all. For at least 4,000 years before Egyptians built temples along the Nile, primitive agricultural tribes had made felines not only pets but also, possibly, objects of reverence. In last week's Science, researchers described a complete cat skeleton found near the grave of a human in a Neolithic village on the island of Cyprus. About 9,500 years old, the skeleton, they say, shows all the signs of having had a burial with some religious significance: the animal had been placed in its own small pit, intact, with no sign of having been mauled by a predator--or butchered. A statue of a cat similar to stone and clay figurines found at sites in Syria, Turkey and Israel also turned up in the village.

It's unclear what prompted these Neolithic farmers to domesticate cats rather than eat them. …