MUSEUM NOTEBOOK

We Kiwis are a bunch of animal lovers.

Our households are second in the world for pet ownership, behind the United States, and statistics show that 58 per cent of homes here include at least one pet.

Cats are the clear favourite with 45 per cent of us having at least one, compared with 31 per cent for dogs.

So how did cats come to train us so well to look after them? Well, it turns out they domesticated themselves.

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From the archaeological records it is difficult to tell when cats became domesticated as there is very little difference between the skeletal structure of the domestic cat and a wild cat.

However, the familiar dappled appearance of many domestic cat coats is new, only appearing over time after the cats came inside.

A genetic study sampling the remains of more 200 cats from sites dating over the past 9000 years shows the majority of domestic cats descend from the Middle Eastern wildcat Felis silvestris ("cat of the woods"), with a second genetic strain coming from Africa.

The common domestic cat today is known as the Felis catus.

A 1983 archaeological dig on Cyprus revealed a cat's jaw that dated to be around 8000 years old.

A dig in 2000 revealed a cat deliberately buried with a human and dated 1500 years earlier.

It is believed these cats must have been domesticated to be brought on the boat to the island, rather than people attempting to bring a hissing and spitting wild cat on a sea voyage.

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It is thought that cats began the domestication process around 12,000 years ago, when civilisation flourished in the fertile crescent of the Middle East.

Dogs were domesticated around 3000 years earlier, being very useful to a hunter-gather society on the move.

These dogs were willing to follow humans as they moved around and to be trained by them to assist with hunting, in exchange for a share of the meat and a warm spot by the fire.

In this mobile lifestyle, cats were not of any use, but as people became more settled and agriculture developed cats proved themselves to be just as useful as the faithful dog.

The change from opportunistic gathering to agriculture meant storing crops but this invited mice and rats, so cats moved in and a mutually beneficial relationship bloomed – the cats were happy to have a source of easy prey, and the humans were happy to have a pest-control system that looked after itself.

Eventually the cats moved from the storage sheds to our laps, and most still take their pest control duties seriously.

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It hasn't always been easy.

This cat is Felis silvestris, the European Wildcat. Not much has changed between wildcats and our fluffy companions indoors.
This cat is Felis silvestris, the European Wildcat. Not much has changed between wildcats and our fluffy companions indoors.

The Ancient Egyptians revered cats, even introducing the death penalty for someone who killed one, and cats have since been appreciated by many societies.

But in the Middle Ages cats became associated with witches and evil and were killed in large numbers.

It is thought this was one of the factors in the spread of the plague, as there weren't as many cats around to hunt the rats who carried the diseased fleas.

Feelings grew positive again from the 1600s and cats are still held as beloved fluffy pets, although we are still much more likely to see a movie villain stroking a cat than a dog.

•Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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