Evolution of The Cat
The evolution of cats began millions of years ago. 50 million years ago carnivores called the Miacis, a weasel like animal, is the ancestor of cats as well as other families such as dogs, bears, raccoons, civets, and hyenas. From Miacis the African Wild Cat evolved.
The early form of a cat dates back to 40 million years. This creature was known as a Dinictis and was about the size of a Lynx.
The first true cats were found at the beginning of the Pliocene Period, which was about 12 million years ago. The evolutionary processes led to three main types of cats: The forest cat, The African wild cat, and The Asiatic desert cat.
In the Valley of the Nile (which is now Sudan, but then was Upper Egypt), the cat was first domesticated, around 4000 BC. The people in Egypt at that time consumed large amounts of grain, and they stored this grain in large storage rooms. Many rats would be drawn to these rooms to eat the grain and breed.
The rodent problem was quite a plague; much of the Egyptians' food and grains were eaten or destroyed by the rodents, who easily chewed through the reed containers.
Rats and mice swarmed the Egyptian cities, and with no traps, poisons or other devices to fight against the rodent population, there was not much the Egyptians could do about it.
The jungle cat "Felis chaus" and the African wildcat "Felis silvestris lybica" lived in this region. The African wildcat was less fearful in nature so was not frightened to enter this new environment in search of rodent prey.
Cats have evolved as predatory hunting animals with great agility and keen senses - particularly hearing, sight and smell. From only a few weeks of age the kittens of all species of cat (including our domesticated varieties) show instinctive behaviour typical of hunter-killers. They are extremely alert to sounds and movements, stalk, ambush, convert rigid stillness into rapid movements to pounce on their prey, and they demonstrate the typical biting and clawing actions needed to bring down and kill prey quickly.
All cats (except the lion and some feral domestic cat colonies) are solitary animals that hunt and fend for themselves. They only come into contact with members of the opposite sex during mating periods when scent in female urine attracts males to her from a long distance. Cats are also very territorial and mark out the perimeter of their "homeland" with their urine. In urban areas our domesticated cats still exhibit these behavioural traits, creating serious problems for male tom cats who inevitably fight with each other as they cross each others territories in search of on-heat females. Neutering can help to reduce the nuisance caused by calling and fighting cats, as well as reducing the number of unwanted litters.
Cats are capable of great speed over short distances - and none is faster than the Cheetah which is able to reach over 60 miles per hour (100km per hour) making it the fastest land animal on Earth.
The Egyptians welcomed their new neighbors when they realized that the Wildcats were killing off the rodents. Many people began leaving small scraps of food outside their houses to encourage the Wildcats to hunt at their home. The cats soon began to stay in the cities because there they had more than enough to eat. The cats were also protected from being hunted because their predators in the wild would not dare come near humans. The cats and humans seemed to be well matched for each other.
The wildcat soon evolved into the domestic cat. The wildcat changed his character by becoming more placid so as to enable it to co-habit with humans and other animals. He also showed physical changes. One of these changes was his coat pattern as it was no longer required as camouflage. His more varied diet caused changes to his gastrointestinal system and over time the wildcat's intestines became longer. The wildcat's brain was also affected and became 30 per cent smaller as it was no longer so dependent on its senses for survival.
It was in this simple beginning that the relationship between cats and humans began. Most likely, Egyptians began letting the Wildcats into their homes, where they allowed them to stay to protect the food from rodents. Soon after their initial domestication, the people probably began petting and stroking the beautiful animals, and cats, being naturally affectionate animals, loved the attention.
The death penalty was later imposed for killing cats in Egypt. Cats were deeply respected and soon the Egyptians even began turning them into symbols of deities. We have evidence of this from the many carved and painted images of cats found on ancient Egyptian tomb walls. Paintings in the tombs of several pharaohs depict cats as beloved pets of the royal family.
When cats died they were mummified the same as humans were and the cats were buried with mummified mice and rats as well as saucers and food.
For a long time, Egypt had held a strict rule that cats could not leave the country. Despite this rule, some people took the risk and smuggled cats to Europe and Asia. At a later date, the cat population probably got very large because cats reproduce quickly and because all cats in Egypt lived a long and healthy life. It was probably around this time that the Egyptians began selling cats to the Romans, the Gaels, the Celts and later to Europeans and the cat population began to spread worldwide.
The earliest ancestors of cats originally evolved about 200 million years ago from reptiles. Prehistoric remains of cats are few and far between but the dental pattern of modern day cats is similar to that found in fossilised creodonts - primitive fish-eating mammals which lived about 50 million years ago, but this genetic line failed to survive and there are no direct descendants today. At the same time another group of animals the miacids also had cat-like cutting teeth - they were small forest-dwelling creatures and these evolved into the carnivores of today - including some cats.
Even though everyone has heard about the "Sabre-toothed Tiger" or Smilodon - which had canine teeth 20cm or longer - this animal is not in fact related to the big cats found on Earth today. The last sabre toothed "cats" died out as recently as 30,000 years ago (based on fossil records in Britain) and possibly only 13,000 years ago (fossil records in California).
Fossils from 12 million years ago are similar to modern small cats. By 3 million years ago there were a wide variety of cats which populated the whole world except the Arctic, Antarctic, Australia and the inhospitable tundra regions. However, Australia does have some indigenous cat-like species e.g. the "marsupial cat".
The cat was also common in China by 500 BC. At first the cat was given as gifts to Emperors. As time went by the nobility were allowed to own them, then the priesthood, and finally the commoners. A lot of the cats interbreed with the local wild cats and created some of the breeds we know today.
Unfortunately the cats' luck changed over the years as they were accused of many wrong doings including: representing evil, spreading the Black Death (bubonic plague) and other diseases.
In 1484, Pope Innocent VII decreed that all cat-worshippers in Europe be burned as witches. He believed that witches worshipped Satan and that they took on the form of their animal helpers, the usual of which were cats. Their habit of prowling around at night further connected them to the devil and witchcraft. Any cat that was in the company of an old woman was assumed to be a witch's evil associate. In many countries, black cats are still considered to be unlucky, while in other countries, a sign of good luck.
The lives of cats didn't appear to improve in Europe until the 17th Century when they became mousers. By the 18th Century they had become popular household pets.
Cat skeletons have been found in very early human settlements but they are assumed by archaeologists to have been wild cats. The earliest true records of domestication of cats date from about 2000 years ago from Ancient Egypt. Examination of skulls found in Egyptian cat burial grounds identified them as mainly being of the species Felis libyca which at that time was a wild cat that inhabited Asia and North Africa. This desert-living cat is now thought to have been the main ancestor of the domestic cats we have today. Migration and interbreeding with native cats resulted (in Europe) in the emergence of a thicker set domestic cat - similar to the European Wild Cat (Felis silvestris)
Cats began being illegally smuggled to Asia soon after they were domesticated in Egypt. The Asians immediately loved cats and began breeding them right away. There are several distinct breeds of cats that were first produced in Asia, such as the Siamese, the Balinese, and the Himalayan.
During the 16th century Native South Americans were introduced to the domestic cat by Spanish explorers. The Aztecs called the cat 'Mizton' or Little Lion' because it looked like the mountain lion!
Other areas of the world have local distinctive breeds of cats, some of which have been produced by man. The Persian cat was developed in the Persian Gulf; the British Shorthair and Longhair were first bred in the UK; the Maine Coon in the new American colonies.
Other breeds came about as spontaneous genetic mutations, such as the American Curl cat, a breed characterized by how the ears fold back into a curl. The American Curl first appeared spontaneously in a litter of kittens on a New York State Farm.
Still other breeds came about when domesticated cats were moved to a new location, later abandoned, and became feral, such as the Norwegian Forest Cat, a woolly breed native to the cold forests of northern Europe.
The Cat Fanciers' Association was founded in 1906 and is dedicated to promoting the welfare of domestic cats and improving the breeds. A nonprofit organization that registers the pedigrees of cats and kittens, the CFA and its affiliates also sponsor over 400 cat shows annually worldwide. In addition, in 1968 the CFA established the Winn Feline Foundation, which has donated over two million dollars toward medical research to improve the health of all cats.