By Donovan Reginald Rosevear
(The carnivores of West Africa).
via Wikimedia Commons.
Today we are used to seeing cats of many colors: solid black, white, and gray; “tuxedo”; tabbies of gray, brown, orange, or cream; and of course calicos and tortoiseshells. But it was not always so. Some three or four thousand years ago, when cats first came to live with humans, those cats were all of one sort: sandy colored with stripes along the sides. Their coloring was similar to that of the wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica, they were descended from.
So how did we get all those other colors? Well, we’re not going to tackle the whole story today (let’s just say it has to do with genetics, and probably with human taste in cats’ appearance). In this post we’re discussing only the first of the new colors to emerge from all those sandy-coated forbears, and that new color may well have been black.
Why do some cats have all-black coats, anyway?
The black coloring results from a genetic mutation that alters the pigmentation (color) in the individual hairs of a cat’s coat. The original domestic cats (and many still today) had an “agouti” type of coat. This means that each individual hair has a dark tip and a lighter color at the root.
Some cats, though, have a “non-agouti” mutation, in which the hairs do not have this pattern and are one solid color, usually black.
When did the first black cats appear?
According to researchers, the non-agouti gene seems to have arisen in about 500 BC somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps in Greece or Phoenicia (Engels, p. 85).
The first known mention of black cats comes roughly one thousand years later, from a sixth-century AD medical writer called Aetius of Amida. Aetius wrote this about the influence of cats’ coat colors on human illness:
The excrement of sick cats provides plenty of causes for illnesses of the following types, depending on the cats’ coat varieties. A whitish coat produces a phlegmatic disorder, a blackish one a melancholic state, and a pale coat, a choleric one. (Engels, p. 75)
So we know for sure that there were black (and white) cats by the sixth century AD, and we can guess that they had probably been around a lot longer than that.
How did black cats spread from the eastern Mediterranean?
A modern black cat in Greece.
Research suggests that black cats
first appeared in the eastern
Mediterranean in 500 BC or so.
This brings us back to the Phoenicians, a somewhat mysterious group who rose in the eastern Mediterranean in about 1100 BC and became the dominant traders in that region and beyond. Over the centuries, they established colonies in Italy, North Africa, and Spain, and they probably took cats with them; they may have even domesticated those cats from their own local wildcats, completely separately from the Egyptians (Bradshaw, p. 44).
You’ll recall now that researchers believe the non-agouti mutation of black cats got its start in the eastern Mediterranean, which is right where the Phoenicians were. Certainly some of the cats they took along to their various colonies were black. Perhaps not coincidentally, genetic mapping has shown that the highest concentrations of the non-agouti gene are found in northwest Africa … and central Britain (Engels, p. 85).
This raises a new question:
Did the Phoenicians bring (black) cats to Britain?
Well, maybe. If the Phoenicians themselves actually reached Britain, then they certainly could have brought cats, including some black ones, along with them. Author John Bradshaw says that this is what happened, and he further speculates that the cats were a remedy the Phoenicians brought to control the mice they’d unintentionally introduced on earlier trading visits (p. 52).
But it could have happened another way.
That genetic mapping I mentioned earlier shows an area of non-agouti concentration that starts around Marseilles and stretches north right up to southern Britain. Marseilles used to be a Greek colony, so it is possible that the Greeks were actually responsible for introducing black cats (and others) to that colony, and further human movement up through France and to Britain helped spread the cats in that direction.
It could have even happened both ways, and we may never know for sure.
Regardless of how they eventually reached Britain and the world beyond, black cats certainly had an interesting early history.
Bradshaw, John. Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. New York: Basic Books, 2013.
Engels, Donald. Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. London: Routledge, 1999.
Tabor, Roger. Cats: The Rise of the Cat. London: BBC Books, 1991
For more on the colors of ancient cats, see "Cats of Few Colors: Ancient Egyptian Felines Came in One Variety."