The Cat in History

The Cat in History

The complete stages in the evolution of the cats into their present forms have not yet been accurately determined by zoologists and paleontologists, although several theories have been offered. While scientists do not agree as to the exact origin of cats, they are in accordance with the fact that the felines have highly specialized skills which have enabled them to survive, and that the roots of their family tree extending back to prehistoric times.

It is possible that the cat, like many other mammals, evolved from a small insect-eating mammal known as the Tupaia (pronounced too-pie), which lived during the Paleocene epoch, some seventy-five million years ago. This prehistoric mammal was a tree dweller and resembled a squirrel, with eyes on the sides of its face. Its vision was poor but it had a highly developed sense of smell.

In the Eocene epoch, about forty million years ago, there appeared descendants of the Tupaia known as Miacis. This was an arboreal animal, a tree dweller with a long, slender body. Miacis was not a highly evolved animal, physically or mentally. It was .a very primitive hunter and meat eater of the tropical forests of its epoch. Despite its relative insignificance at the time, Miacis was the rootstock of modern cats, dogs, weasels, bears, civets, hyenas, and raccoons.

In the course of evolving these descendants, nature produced many types and forms, some of which might be considered evolutionary experiments. Various species, types, and varieties descending from Miacis failed to adapt and soon became extinct. However, one group of mammals remained more or less like Miacis, their ancestor. These were the civets (Viverridae), the small catlike mammals of the Old World.

The civets of today are not very different from Miacis. They are small, long-bodied animals with pointed, fox-like heads. Civets inhabit Africa, the southernmost regions of Europe, and the Orient. They are known for their contribution to the perfume industry: exudates from the anal glands, called “civets”, are used as a base for the more expensive perfumes.

The civets made their appearance in the Oligocene epoch (which followed the Eocene) some twenty million years ago. In the same epoch, the first cats appeared. The cats, however, did not go through intermediate stages of evolution from Miacis to their Oligocene forms but seem to have just suddenly appeared on the scene. This type of appearance of a form or species is called siltation.

Perhaps the animal closest to a primitive cat is an odd mammal called the fosse (Cryptoprocta faro). It is native to Madagascar and resembles the genet, a spotted animal related to the civets. The fossa may grow to a length of six feet, most of which consists of the tail. It has a fox-like head, retractile claws (five on each foot), teeth that combine the structures of those of the cat and civet, and a very dies-agreeable disposition. Unlike cats, which walk on their toes, the fossa walks plant grade, or on the soles of its feet. Despite its rather nasty disposition, the fosse can be tamed and is regarded by scientists as a very close relative of our domestic and wild cats.

In the siltation of the cats, two types appeared—Dimities and Hoplo-phones. Although both were catlike in appearance, there were some major differences. Hoplophoneus was a large animal with unusually long canine teeth. Melodeon, the saber-tooth tiger, was a descendant ofHoplophoneus. Melodeon was a large, slow-moving cat equipped with long canine teeth for destroying its prey. Since its victims were unusually large, slow-moving mammals like themselves, Melodeon’s lack of speed was not a handicap.

This prehistoric cat’s teeth often reached a length of six inches and were set in jaws that opened to a 90-degree angle. When the large mammals which provided Melodeon with food became extinct, this great cat was unable to catch the smaller and speedier mammals, and so it, too, soon disappeared. All that remains today of this interesting cat are bones and reconstructed skeletons, which may be seen in some museums of natural history.

Dimities, the other catlike animal of the Oligocene, proved to be more adaptable and eventually produced our modem cats. Dimities were smaller than Hoplophoneus and were faster and more agile, both on the ground and in the trees. Furthermore, it was endowed with intelligence to match its speed. The descendants of Dimities were apparently so well adapted for survival that nature made no attempt to improve upon them. Cats today, except for a few minor variations, are astonishingly similar to those of the prehistoric Dimities group.

There is little doubt that domestic cats descend from more than one species of wild cat. The jungle cat probably helped produce some varieties, as did the Kaffir cat. Both of these cats have markings like our common tabby cats, and both mate readily with domestic cats to produce fertile hybrids. It is very probable that still other wild species were involved in producing some of the domestic types. This multiple ancestry is known as the polyphyletic origin.

Charles Darwin held the above opinion as to the origin of the cat. In. his great work, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Darwin described the process by which wild descendants of domesticated cats revert to the habits and appearance of their various ancestors.


The cat is a relative newcomer to the ranks of man’s domestic animals. What records we have of its early domestication date back only 5,000 years. The dog, on the other hand, is believed to have been domesticated at least 20,000 years ago, possibly longer. Sheep were domesticated by New Stone Age people nearly 11,000 years ago, and cattle have been working for the man for nearly 8,000 years.

Our earliest reliable record of the cat’s domestication is derived from ancient Egypt. Various papyri, tomb carvings, and other artifacts of the Egyptians show the importance of the cat as a pet and animal of worship. Scholars who have translated Sanskrit writings tell us that cats were important also to the ancient Hindus.

It is likely that other ancient peoples adopted cats as pets and working animals, but no records have been left of this. It is possible that New Stone Age men brought kittens home and trained them as pets and hunters. Today African and Australian aborigines, people not far removed from the New Stone Age, are fond of animals and often tame them. If cats were kept by Stone Age people at all, they were merely tamed and not domesticated.

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