Miss Cuddlywumps considers the archaeological evidence for Britain’s first domestic cats
Hello, Britain! When did the first domestic cat
arrive in Britain? Earlier than you might think.
Photo © Andreykuzmin | Dreamstime.com.
The earliest known cats in Britain
Evidence of early domestic cats in Britain comes from an Iron Age (in Britain, about 800 BC–AD 43) settlement called Gussage All Saints, near Dorset in southern England. Excavations in this settlement revealed the skeletons of several cats, including five kittens. They have been dated to around 250 BC. (Interestingly, Britain’s earliest known house mouse was discovered at the same site.) These cats are identified as domestic for two reasons:
- the skeletons were articulated, and
- the cats were breeding in a human settlement.
The first point is important because it tells us the cats had not been butchered. Yes, there were wildcats in Britain before domestic cats arrived on the scene, but those wildcats would not willingly set paw in a human settlement. The only reason a wildcat would be in such a place would be if it had been caught to be used as food; in that case, the skeletons would be disarticulated and the bones would show butcher marks.
The second point is important because a European wildcat would not simply settle down and raise a family near humans. And yet, here these cats were, with five little kittens. (Note: we do not know if any of the cats found were the parents of the kittens.)
So where did these cats come from?
If the Romans did not deliver Britain’s first domestic cats, who did? Well, no one knows for sure. Genetic studies have revealed a sort of population corridor stretching from the Greek colony of Masilia (founded in about 600 BC; today it’s called Marseilles, France) up the Rhone and Seine rivers and across the English Channel to southern England. Cats may have been transported and traded along this route, beginning with those Greeks in Masilia. Or they may have arrived by sea, brought by Phoenicians visiting Britain in search of tin (Phoenicians were active traders around the Mediterranean world from around 1500 BC to 322 BC).
The evidence uncovered so far doesn’t tell us exactly how cats got to Britain or which humans they came with. In any case, domestic cats were certainly living in Britain, and probably catching house mice there, long before the Romans arrived.
Davis, Simon J.M. The Archaeology of Animals. Yale University Press, 1987 (p. 182).
Engels, Donald. Classical Cats. Routledge, 1999 (pp. 80–82).
Wastlhuber, Joan. “History of Domestic Cats and Cat Breeds.” In Feline Husbandry, edited by NC Pedersen, pp. 1–59. American Veterinary Publications, 1991 (p. 3).