Why would some people in ancient Egypt sacrifice two young adult cats and four kittens and bury them near a cemetery wall? I do not know, but that is apparently what happened in a place called Hierakonpolis one day some 5,700 years ago. Archaeologists excavated the cat skeletons in 2008 and have recently published some results from their studies of the bones. It looks like cat domestication in Egypt may have been happening about 1,700 years earlier than we used to think. (Want pictures? Click here.)
Hierakonpolis is on the Nile’s west bank about 350 miles south of Cairo. The ancient site included homes, industrial and ceremonial areas, and cemeteries. One cemetery, HK6 (as it is called today), was for the area’s rich and famous. That is where, about 3700–3600 BC, people built some large tombs surrounded by simpler human burials and quite a few animal burials. The animals included dogs, crocodiles, even elephants—and of course cats. Some of the animals, including the cats, were buried near walls, and the burials may have had something to do with ceremonially marking boundaries.
Now to the cats. There was a male cat about one year old, a female who was a little bit younger, and four kittens who were four or five months old. The kittens were not from the same litter—one pair was just a bit older than the other—and the adult female was too young to be the mother of either pair. No one knows if the adult male is the father of any of the kittens.
Measurements of the cats’ bones showed that the animals were probably domestic. Also, the ages of the young female and the four kittens do not quite fit the usual pattern of reproduction in Egyptian wild cats. Usually, wild cats have just one litter a year, but the female and the kittens in this grave would have been born in different seasons of the same year. This suggests human intervention, and the researchers conclude there was “some kind of relationship between man and cats at or near Hierankopolis.”
Whatever that relationship was, it was certainly different from the relationship between humans and cats today.
[She of Little Talent wishes me to tell you that information in this post is from the following article: Van Neer, Linslee, Friedman, & De Cupere. 2014. More evidence for cat taming at the Predynastic elite cemetery of Hierakonpolis (Upper Egypt). Journal of Archaeological Science 45, 103—111.]