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How Humans Domesticated Cats (Twice)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2019

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like cats are particularly domesticated, but as this PBS video explains, humans have actually domesticated cats two separate times, once in southwest Asia ~10,000 years ago and in Egypt ~3500 years ago. They were probably tamed by being around human settlements for the source of food. This is the commensal pathway to domestication, one of the three major pathways followed by most domesticated animals.

The commensal pathway was traveled by vertebrates that fed on refuse around human habitats or by animals that preyed on other animals drawn to human camps. Those animals established a commensal relationship with humans in which the animals benefited but the humans received no harm but little benefit. Those animals that were most capable of taking advantage of the resources associated with human camps would have been the tamer, less aggressive individuals with shorter fight or flight distances. Later, these animals developed closer social or economic bonds with humans that led to a domestic relationship.

Dogs were probably domesticated through this pathway as well — see Neil deGrasse Tyson’s explanation from Cosmos of how wolves evolved into dogs.

And I love any post about cats because it’s an excuse to revisit one of my favorite short talks ever, in which Kevin Slavin suggests that cats have had a hand in domesticating humans for the purpose of sharing funny cat videos online, thus spreading pro-cat propaganda across the globe.