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Cats' Cradle
May 26, 2009 9:26 AM   Subscribe

"It is by turns aloof and affectionate, serene and savage, endearing and exasperating." The origins of the house cat, when and how it was domesticated, have been matters of scientific debate. However, according to this article, it looks like we didn't adopt them; they adopted us, and a lot earlier in our history than has been supposed.
posted by angiep (49 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Anyone who has ever "owned" a cat has known this all along...or at least questioned who was the dominant partner in the relationship.
posted by JaredSeth at 9:31 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Kitty!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:31 AM on May 26, 2009 [13 favorites]


I was pretty interested in the tame silver fox experiment mentioned in the article. The NYT wrote an article about it a decade ago.
posted by jessamyn at 9:32 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


That previous comment wasn't me -- it was the toxoplasmosis talking.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:37 AM on May 26, 2009 [12 favorites]


(Oddly, domestic cats seem to have reached the British Isles before the Romans brought them over—a dispersal that researchers cannot yet explain.)

I'm imagining a whole tide of angry, wet cats washing up on the shores of Dubrās.
posted by The Whelk at 9:38 AM on May 26, 2009 [11 favorites]


While I found the article and study interesting, I question the opening assumption by the author:

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.

Even in my many times removed from sustenance farming urban apartment, my kitty safeguards my foodstocks against mice and rats. (And, disgustingly, an occasional cockroach. You haven't lived until you've heard the crunch, crunch and seen moving antenna and insect legs sticking out of your purring cats mouth). So, the 'they adopted us' meme rings true, but to say it's purely an aesthetic pleasure, and not shared evolutionary advantage seems false.
posted by PissOnYourParade at 9:43 AM on May 26, 2009 [8 favorites]


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.
Wait a minute... I'm not supposed to milk my cat?
posted by Flunkie at 9:49 AM on May 26, 2009 [7 favorites]


You can milk just about anything with nipples.
posted by Cookiebastard at 9:52 AM on May 26, 2009 [4 favorites]


Wait a minute... nipples?
posted by Flunkie at 9:53 AM on May 26, 2009


Wait a ...minutes?
posted by The Whelk at 9:55 AM on May 26, 2009


You're doing it wrong.
posted by Cookiebastard at 9:55 AM on May 26, 2009


Oh my childhood cat "Snib" totally adopted us. Brought her home as a kitten and in months she had us quite well trained. Food, warmth, affection. When she was in the mood she deigned to give us gifts: "What? Look I brought you HALF of the mouse! More than half if you count that spine part. Do not test my generosity. Now pet me." It worked out well for 20 years.

Interesting article anyway, if a little light on actual data.
posted by elendil71 at 9:57 AM on May 26, 2009


it looks like we didn't adopt them; they adopted us,

Anyone who has owned cats knows this to be true. Their inability to open canned cat-food pretty much requires that they would use their hypnotic Toxoplasma Gondii powers to claim human slaves. Also: we have windowsills, and they love that shit.

jessamyn : I was pretty interested in the tame silver fox experiment mentioned in the article.

My wife and I have been obsessed with this for years. The idea of breeding specifically against aggression and towards human friendliness is a really interesting concept. Plus, they are freakin' adorable.
posted by quin at 9:59 AM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


PissOnYourParade: "While I found the article and study interesting, I question the opening assumption by the author... Even in my many times removed from sustenance farming urban apartment, my kitty safeguards my foodstocks against mice and rats."

There is one eccentric and wealthy old lady in Cornwall, the kind who is often the victim in mystery stories, who was stoned in 1940 because she had refused to kill her cat and her terrier. Moreover, she had turned her cellars and her air-raid shelter into a haven for every pet she could rescue from the panicky village. That seemed terrible to the people, to feed and protect brute beasts while little children were bombed and might be hungry too. The old lady was most unpopular, in 1940. But in 1941 she was not. By then the rats and mice were scampering prolifically and plumply through many another village than hers, and contrary to centuries of habit, people beamed instead of groaned when they saw an enceinte alley cat, or heard a terrier ratting in the barn. - M.F.K. Fisher, How To Cook A Wolf
posted by Joe Beese at 9:59 AM on May 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


this just so story seems straightforward. One of the better comments from the site is a speculation that the Phoenicians could have brought the domesticated cat onboard ships to the British Isles before Roman times--ships need vermin control as well as farms, and could have served as excellent dispersal mechanisms for the F.s.lybica.

it would be also interesting to see the genetic work showing the evidence for a timeline for the human domestication of the Norwegian rat and the House mouse, since it's the human relationship with these species that defines the benefit of domesticating felines. these, too, would have benefitted from stores of food on farms or ships.
posted by eustatic at 10:06 AM on May 26, 2009


... and they have a plan.
posted by mazola at 10:10 AM on May 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


Both Cats and Cylons act as if they have a plan, but they're just making it up as they go along with an "I MEANT to do that" look.
posted by The Whelk at 10:16 AM on May 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


what are the experts saying about my pussy, the aloha's newest masterwork memoir?

"aloof and affectionate"
- new york review of books

"serene and savage"
- kirkus

"endearing and exasperating."
- utne reader
posted by the aloha at 10:20 AM on May 26, 2009


At the end of the article, they mention very briefly that housecats have smaller brains than their wild cousins, but don't bother to explain what (if any) evolutionary process led to this decrease in brain size, and what (if any) advantage it confers. What gives?
posted by saladin at 10:32 AM on May 26, 2009


And the final nail in our coffin is going to be when they get us to create enough LOLCAT picture bandwidth to boot up Skynet via the steganographed code lurking inside all the captions.
posted by Iosephus at 10:42 AM on May 26, 2009 [6 favorites]


And without cats, where would B. Kliban have been?
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:50 AM on May 26, 2009


I thought you were my cat!
posted by Pseudology at 11:08 AM on May 26, 2009


Meow what is so damn funny?
posted by Night_owl at 11:11 AM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not thread related, but getting a catdoor has been the best goddamn thing we've done in the past 3 years for health, well-being, and not having to get up at the crack of dawn to let out the feline.
posted by daHIFI at 11:24 AM on May 26, 2009


I'm seriously not at all surprised by the idea that agriculture lead to cat domestication; it seems not so much a "Just So" as a "Well duh!" . It's well known that cats are ferocious mousers, and farms today will still "lend out" cats to farms that have rodent problems. Feeding cats also increases their efficiency, as they will not roam as far away as they do when they have to depend solely on hunting for food.

So, add it all together, you get: Agriculture = concentrations of grain = concentrations of rodents and insects = concentrations of cats. Someone feeds a cat, or takes in a kitten, and they find out that cats stick around and kill MORE pests. It really doesn't take a huge social leap for this to happen.
posted by happyroach at 11:36 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Wild. I had no idea ancient Mesopotamians created the cheezburger...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:42 AM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


At the end of the article, they mention very briefly that housecats have smaller brains than their wild cousins, but don't bother to explain what (if any) evolutionary process led to this decrease in brain size, and what (if any) advantage it confers. What gives?

It helps them understand us. To wild felines we just seem stupid.
posted by srboisvert at 12:15 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Our tomcat was semi-feral when he moved in. Now, after some years, he hunts less and eats indoors most of the time. But he still likes to chow down on the occasional mouse or vole. He never brings us any presents, he eats them all himself. He looks almost exactly like wildcat in the last link.
posted by RussHy at 12:22 PM on May 26, 2009


One of the books I had as a small child was called The Cats of Borneo, which told the story of "operation cat drop," a lesson in unintended consequences.

The notion that cats do nothing in the way of work doesn't hold up, even if it is widespread. There's an idiom in Japanese: 猫の手も借りたい, which means "(I'm so busy that) I'd even want a cat to lend a hand."
posted by adamrice at 12:39 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Surely it is a bacteria that makes me feel love for my longhaired, shedding, crosseyed, overweight, emotionally-needy at 5am Maine coon cat. He's the size of a small dog, barely purrs, and has to eat special cat food for "gastrointestinal issues." Yet, there he is and we seem to be stuck with him.
posted by emjaybee at 12:49 PM on May 26, 2009


srboisvert : To wild felines we just seem stupid.

When watching cats react to the world around them, I've often remarked that they do so like a scientist testing and evaluating a subject.

Sure, to us it may look like "String! Woo! String!" but we have untrained eyes. To someone who knows what is going on, it would actually sound something more like; "Fascinating, when I apply pressure to this side, its elasticity forces it to overcome the air resistance and thus, it is propelled in the opposite direction with an equitable quantity of force."

Or; "How very curious; when the centipede attempts to cross the floor, and it is stymied by my paw, its primary reaction is to drop by .02 centimeters thus allowing it to move more quickly. Yet, when I apply vertical force to it, it impedes its ability to move at all. Also, it tastes of moist, rotten wood. I must document this in the cat litter immediately!"

Cats are all physicists and psychologists; little, evil, furry scientists.

Wild cats are probably just even more so.
posted by quin at 12:54 PM on May 26, 2009 [11 favorites]


Fascinating article, thanks!

Even in my many times removed from sustenance farming urban apartment, my kitty safeguards my foodstocks against mice and rats. ... So, the 'they adopted us' meme rings true, but to say it's purely an aesthetic pleasure, and not shared evolutionary advantage seems false.

You didn't actually read the article, eh?
posted by languagehat at 12:55 PM on May 26, 2009


At the end of the article, they mention very briefly that housecats have smaller brains than their wild cousins, but don't bother to explain ...

I vaguely remember reading a similar comment about dogs versus wolves in a page linked from a previous MeFi thread. The theory was that domestication gives easier, steady access to food, which lessens the selection benefits of greater intelligence.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:55 PM on May 26, 2009


Agriculture = concentrations of grain = concentrations of rodents and insects = concentrations of cats.

I would take that a step further, and say desire for beer -> agriculture -> ... -> cats

So beer leads to cats.
posted by exogenous at 12:56 PM on May 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


Midnight definitely adopted me, not the other way around. I started feeding him as a stray and he eventually became attached to me and moved in. He's very possessive and doesn't like to let me out of his sight. As soon as I sit down, he usually jumps on my lap and starts purring loudly.
posted by mike3k at 1:54 PM on May 26, 2009


Thanks to this article, I was able to go home and explain to my new blue-eyed Siamese-ish kitten that she was the result of genetic drift.

I could tell that she was only pretending not to understand me.
posted by elder18 at 2:27 PM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


So beer leads to cats.

true - i had the cats just the other week!

(why is catatonia so difficult to pronounce when munted?)
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:58 PM on May 26, 2009


elder18 : I could tell that she was only pretending not to understand me.

Just wait until she starts talking back. Siamese are very... vocal. And it's not that she does or doesn't understand you, you are merely a tool to her. You are the pillow/ food getter/ head scratcher/ dangler of string. She doesn't need to understand you, she just needs to be able to tell you what to do.

Despite being one of the smallest animals in the house, mine is able to boss around three other cats, two dogs, and a bunch of birds. She is a thug.

And she loves only me.
posted by quin at 3:14 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


(Oddly, domestic cats seem to have reached the British Isles before the Romans brought them over—a dispersal that researchers cannot yet explain.)

This doesn't seem surprising to me. The Amesbury Archer migrated to Britain from central Europe in 2300 BC, so efficient trade routes were clearly well established long before the Romans showed up. It's not hard to imagine that someone brought their cat.
posted by homunculus at 5:15 PM on May 26, 2009


The article mentioned cats' cute facial features appealing to humans and triggering our nurturing response, which is very true. The fact that the average adult cat is the roughly the same size and weight of a newborn infant doesn't hurt either.

Another factor which probably solidified their place among people was their entertainment value. There really wasn't much to do back then so watching cats perform their silly antics and acrobatic feats would have been one of the more amusing and funny after dinner pastimes several thousand years ago.

Oh, and as mentioned in the article, cats have a higher body temperature than humans and prefer warmer temperatures, thus making them living (and willing) hot water bottles for their prehistoric owners during cold winter nights. And cats also love using us for the same purpose.

Lastly, let's not forget that a community's cats make for very convenient emergency bundles of protein...and vice versa.
posted by Devils Slide at 5:51 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Despite the prevailing wisdom to the contrary, I think cats must have been domesticated long before dogs. Like toddlers, dogs rely on the unsophisticated "Love me! Love me! I love you!" strategy to win the love and approval of their human. Cats, like the writers of The Rules and the people who develop slot machine algorithms, know that the key to inspiring true devotion is to play hard to get and randomly pay out affection. Smart little furry bastards they are.
posted by Maisie at 7:34 PM on May 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


So, cats adopted mankind because of the food scraps and the mice they attracted...

Perhaps mankind adopted dogs to keep away all the cats?! ;-)
posted by markkraft at 7:46 PM on May 26, 2009


And without cats, where would B. Kliban have been?

Doing far more interesting work in my estimation, though likely even more obscure.
posted by Herodios at 8:12 PM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh, and as mentioned in the article, cats have a higher body temperature than humans and prefer warmer temperatures, thus making them living (and willing) hot water bottles for their prehistoric owners during cold winter nights.

God, no kidding. I have two, one of which has this need to be constantly touching me in some way. Which is cute initially, but having a hairy hot water bottle attached to you when it's 30+ degrees Celsius is incredibly frustrating.

My favourite explanation of cats and their background, thanks to Terry Prachett:

"In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this."
posted by aclevername at 10:28 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


As my parents like to say: dogs have owners, cats have staff.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:29 AM on May 27, 2009


As far as I can tell the Maew in the book titled Tamara Maew* that is referenced in the article is an onomatopoeia, and for some reason that makes me really happy. Although I'd like to see a phonetic notation to be sure.

*"This drift led to the emergence of the Korat, the Siamese, the Birman and other “natural breeds,” which were described by Thai Buddhist monks in a book called the Tamara Maew (meaning “Cat-Book Poems”) that may date back to 1350."
posted by =^^= at 3:14 AM on May 27, 2009


As far as I can tell the Maew in the book titled Tamara Maew* that is referenced in the article is an onomatopoeia

I'm not sure what you mean. Maew (or maau, depending on the transliteration; in Thai it's แมว) is just the Thai word for 'cat.' Yes, it kind of sounds like "meow," which is amusing, but it's just a Thai word.
posted by languagehat at 7:36 AM on May 27, 2009


I meant it in the way the Dutch word for zipper "rits" closely resembles the sound of a zipper to my Dutch ears (and zipper like a zipper to my English ears). In the case of the Thai word แมว, I don't care if this is really how the word came about or just a coincidence. It makes me happy, because, well, You're a kitty!
posted by =^^= at 5:13 PM on May 27, 2009


Fighting off, and feeding on, rodents that would gnaw away at masterpieces, dozens of "working" cats patrol the labyrinthine storerooms of Russia's Hermitage museum.
posted by homunculus at 6:07 PM on June 14, 2009


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