How Cats and People Grew to Love Each Other

Long before cats ruled the Internet and tamed humans to do their bidding, they had to be domesticated themselves. But the science has always been murky on when that occurred.

A cat is pictured during a 2013 cat exhibition in Moscow. Photograph by Vasily Maximov, AFP/Getty Images

Today’s domestic cats are believed to be the descendants of ancient Near Eastern wildcats, and the previous discovery of a wildcat buried near a human in Cyprus roughly 9,500 years ago suggests some type of long-running relationship. The Egyptians famously thought very highly of cats, keeping them domestically and even administering medical treatment to them some 4,000 years ago.

Now a new study marks possibly the earliest known evidence of a beneficial relationship between humans and cats. Researchers analyzing 5,300-year-old cat bones, found at the village of Quanhucun in China, determined that the bones match up closely with those of modern domestic cats—and that people may have even fed the animals. (See “Cats Use ‘Irresistible’ Purr-Whine to Get Their Way.”)

Cats Followed Rats to Domestication

In the Yangshao period in China, farmers in the village of Quanhucun grew millet crops and kept domesticated pigs and dogs. This agricultural activity attracted rodents, which, in turn, may have attracted wildcats.

At the archaeological site, scientists uncovered ancient rodent burrows leading to grain-storage pits. They also found ceramic vessels whose features suggest they were designed to keep rodents from pillaging food stores. This means there was plenty of pest-control work for cats to do and plenty of incentive for people to encourage them to move in. (Learn about National Geographic’s Little Kitties for Big Cats initiative.)

The ancient cats’ diet provided researchers with further clues about their relationship with people. Chemical analysis of the bones showed that one cat had eaten a largely plant-based diet—in other words, human-grown grain—while another had lived to an advanced age.

“These results suggest that cats may have played a variety of roles in the settlement, ranging from mutualistic hunters and scavengers to encouraged animals or even pets,” according to the study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The benefit would’ve been mutual: Villagers got a live-in rodent exterminator to protect their grain, while wildcats got a year-round supply of food. (And presumably a steady supply of warm laps.)

In other words, you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.

Stefan Sirucek is a writer and journalist who reports from both sides of the Atlantic. He's written for the Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @sirstefan.
  • Ima Ryma

    Human domestication by
    The what would become household cat
    Is probably thanks to rats. Why?
    Cats are drawn where rodents are at,
    As a good source for food and fun.
    As humans left the caves to farm,
    A lot of rat damage was done
    To the grown grains. To stop this harm,
    The humans and cats struck a deal.
    The cats would rats exterminate,
    In return for steady home meal.
    A purrfect match this did create.

    A scratching back concept of yore,
    Of course, cats scratch humans backs more.

  • Idina Adas

    One of the most overlooked aspects of the appeal of cats for the ancient world is so obvious once you see it: they kill mice. Egypt was the breadbasket of the ancient world, and when you’re storing grain, mice are the #1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 problem. It’s no wonder cats were worshiped. Something so beautiful that carried itself with such dignity, whose eyes seemed so wise, and eliminated the biggest threat to your existence? How could you not think it was sent from heaven?

  • Bethy

    Great poem Ima!

  • Fauzudin Md.Zain

    One of my pet cats (a male) always make a lot of cat noises besides the normal meiowing,..when he comes home from his usual walkabout, outside the compound, or when he wants something to eat, like he’s talking to us and telling us what or where he has been..!

  • Michelle

    Cats don’t love us. They tolerate us. They are companions of evil.

  • Isi

    Anyone who thinks that cats are evil is either ignorant or stupid. Animals are not evil, they simply react to the environment around them. Cats have long assisted us and kept us company. Show a cat a little kindness and you have a loyal friend for life. The people who have the most problems with cats (or other animals) are usually doing something to provoke a negative reaction.

  • amphibious

    Re ailurophilic Egyptians, it is striking that the only common, domestic or wild animal NOT mentioned int he Bible is … the cat.
    Previous theories as to whether dogs were the first domesticated animals focused on their use in hunting or guarding but the most likely explanation is that they were the only food source that came when called.

  • Cat

    Human beings, I do luv ya.

  • nancy

    Did you ever see Andy Warhol’s “Nativity” in which the baby Jesus is holding a kitty?

  • Maxime

    who can say cats are evil ??? why ??? their always nice with me.

  • TigerlilyCat32

    I hate the people who think cats are evil. There is even a quote ”Beware of the people who dislike cats”. People who hate cats are not creative or kind people. Cat haters are ignorant and stupid.

  • thracian

    Cats are domesticated in the Balkans 10 000 years ago like many other things , domesticated or created, as Balkans are the cradle of civilization, not Egypt (Thracian colony after the flood), not Mesopotamia and even not Sumeria (also Thracian colony) 🙂 even that the first Egypt kings were from the Balkans 🙂 and there is a reason WHY The Goddess of Cats “BAST” here dead body was shipped from Egypt to here home land – today known as Bulgaria. 🙂 But of course you need to be intelligent and smart and do your research first without other people lies. First writings are in the Balkans, first civilization is here, as first gold and biggest one, first vine graves are here, not in Iran, Armenia or other place, Wheel was invented here, first laws, and country was invented here, first gods and religions and many other things, get your “shits”strait ! When my people were calculation the Old Bulgarian Calendar and the movement of the planets, everyone was still in diapers. An no no no nothing is semitic Greek, the greek invasion and propaganda came in the balkans around 1200 bc, not for sure 8000 bc, and the new dna researches are showing that even the today greeks aren’t the ancient etyopian greeks at all, but descendants of the Bolgarians, that dwell in Balkans even 33 000 years bc. So even many things that today’s stupid population on the planet think that are greek belongings or inventions they Are certainly Not, or even Egyption. The so called PANTHEON’s of the Gods, doenst have a greek word to describe it, but it has bulgarian one, Panta is something that holds the door, Eon is also a word of time. And the closses animal word of old time for the cats, are Pantera’s Barses and Lions, and greek for sure didnt know what Panthera is, but in the ancient artefact 2-3 000 years bc before greeks even existed, there is painting on the walls with Orpheus and Pantera the closest to him, and of course other animals 🙂 but to talk about cats or anything else in the word, YOU Realy need to know OLD HISTORY or YOU my little children actually will know nothing, just like american culture you will invent lies and belive in it, just like most of you, if not all are doing it. Help CATS to Save humanity, learn the truth and deal with it(deal with yourself).

  • Makie

    To Thracian: hahahaha! ok, calm down, we get it, people on Balkans are super-old, ancient civilization. So what’s the idea? And what it has to do with CATS, for God’s sake? It seems to me just a lot of bragging, you know. We’re pretty much all mixed up as human race, so… 🙂

  • Laurent


  • Anon

    Cats are the best! Evil someone said??? What??? People are evil, animals are just animals doing what they do by instinct and not malice.

  • Bunny

    Tracian….egotistical much. Wow. Someone thinks they are the better human.

  • Chelseaqueen

    Cats are beautiful and nice creatures. They aren’t evil please.


    CATS RULE!!! People who don’t like cats dislike them just because they scratch them or there allergic to them. That’s so stupid!!!! I LITERALLY have a 500 page essay about why cats are the best!!!!! And people who like dogs are okay, but it’s not okay if there judging other animals. CATS RULE!!!!!!!!!!! =^._.^= <3

  • Kitty3

    I agree with all who believe that cats are not evil. In fact, I have 3 loving, sweet indoor cats who not only get along very well with one another, they loved and played well with my dogs….and mourned for them when they were gone. I find that comments insulting the content of the article is unnecessary. Essentially, it’s an insult to the author with so much hostility… and inaccurate information.

  • Lilly

    People who think cats are evil aren’t being stupid.
    I don’t think cats are evil, but if some little kid accidentally scared a cat and got scratched, the rest of their lives they might think all cats are evil. But that opinion would be based on one short experience, with just one cat. I think most people would love cats if they met a nice one and spent a lot of time with it. I love cats.

  • Nancy S

    Life long cowgirl here. Also surrounded by dogs and horses but never spent time in the cat world. I have always observed cat owners, usually women fawn over their purring adorable pets. Due to mouse infestation I now have two “mouser kittens” arriving in a few days and am reading everything I can to be better prepared. Our big dogs are all lovers and I am quite sure our dogs will take over these kitties like new babies. Can’t wait! (that evil stuff is ignorant….only humans can be possessed)

  • User_0

    Gobeklitepe | The Oldest Temple of the World
    Gobeklitepe is a pre-historic site dating from roughly 12000 years ago, near Sanliurfa, Turkey. Read all about Gobeklitepe on this dedicated site.
    Gobekli Tepe is in Turkey and the cat of that area is now the ancestor of all the world’s domestic cats which number 12 types worldwide. The T shaped stones of the henges were carved from limestone and are 13′ high – a series of 21 henges, each smaller than the last, were built over 4000 years before the whole complex was buried and only discovered around a some 15 years or so by a German Archeologist. Google has lots of photos of the excavations. A permanent team of some 500 persons is thought to have been required to build and maintain the sites which meant permanent food stores which meant rodents which meant cats which had cute kittens. So it seems cats and people are at least 12000 years old.

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