It is by turns aloof and affectionate, serene and savage, endearing and exasperating. Despite its mercurial nature, however, the house cat is the most popular pet in the world. A third of American households have feline members, and more than 600 million cats live among humans worldwide. Yet as familiar as these creatures are, a complete understanding of their origins has proved elusive. Whereas other once wild animals were domesticated for their milk, meat, wool or servile labor, cats contribute virtually nothing in the way of sustenance or work to human endeavor.
The evolution of the cat species known today is commonly traced down to the earliest domesticated ‘cult animal’, in ancient Egypt. However, recent research reveals that the lines of descent narrow down to five species of self-domesticated African Wildcats. The earliest records on the Felis silvestris lybica order date back to nearly 8000 BC, in the Orient. The domestic cat that we are familiar with was first classified by Carolus Linnaeus as Felis catus. This classification appeared in the 1758 publication ‘Systema Naturae’, authored by him. Subsequent research revealed that domestic cats are con-specific with the wildcat species. This commonality led to the 1777 classification by Schreber, under the name ‘Felis silvestris’.
The characteristics of the cat—a relatively asocial nature, territoriality, a requirement for a meat-based diet, and a lack of usefulness to humans—suggest that domestication was the cats’ idea. Researchers into cat evolution speculate that it began when African Wildcats (which, despite their name, were present in the Near East) began to live near human settlements. Their motivation was the abundance of rodents that were taking advantage of grain stores, a result of the new technology of agriculture.
As anyone familiar with cats can tell you, the scenario of humans somehow forcing cats to perform this service is unlikely—cats likely began this behavior on their own. Another probable attractor was garbage from human settlements.