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Science & Space

Ancient burial looks like human and pet cat

About 7,500 years before Egyptians, a surprising find in Cyprus

By Marsha Walton
CNN

Archeologists discovered the grave of a human, the circular skeleton seen at the top of the image, and a cat just inches away.
Archeologists discovered the grave of a human, the circular skeleton seen at the top of the image, and a cat just inches away.

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(CNN) -- Archeologists say they have evidence that a bond between cats and humans was forged thousands of years before previously thought.

An elaborate Neolithic burial site uncovered in the Shillourokambos settlement on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus reveals that the friendship between cats and humans may go back 9,500 years. Prior to the discovery, Egyptians were thought to be the first to keep cats as pets, around 2,000 to 1,900 BC.

Scientists, who published their findings Thursday in the journal Science, say a skeleton of a young cat was found just a few inches from the remains of a human, buried in a similar fashion.

"We don't know if the human was a male or a female, but we do know that he or she had a special status in society," said Jean -Denis Vigne, vice president of the Scientific Council of the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

The cat was the Felis silvestris species, a wildcat, a bit larger than modern domestic cats. It was about eight months old when it died.

Researchers found many items not often found in other graves, including flints, a small green stone axe, and two dozen shells. The cat skeleton was just 15 inches from the human skeleton. Vigne said the animal skeleton showed no sign of having been butchered, and its proximity to the human suggested some respect or reverence. It is possible, he said, that the cat was killed to accompany the human in the afterworld.

Vigne said there is no way to know if this cat was a pet. But he said the burial find in Cyprus indicates that the relationship between cats and people involved spiritual links.

Stone and clay figurines of cats have also been found at archeological sites in Syria, Turkey, and Israel from the Neolithic period, the latest period of the Stone Age.

Archeologists examining early bonds between cats and humans usually describe the benefits to the pet owners as rodent control. The cats would benefit from easier access to food, the researchers said.

But in the case found in the Cyprus dig, the cat would likely have been brought to the island from a mainland location, some 35 to 50 miles away.

Vigne said other animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and dogs, were probably also transported from the mainland around the same time.

"This is an important site for the whole of western Asia," said Vigne. "Because it has told us this civilization crossed the sea to this island both for culture and to domesticate animals."

Until this Cypriot excavation, the Egyptians were long considered the earliest civilization to both tame cats and to show a great reverence toward them. The Egyptian goddess Bastet often appears with a human body and a feline head.

Along the Nile River, cats were viewed as protectors of the home, keeping the household free of pests. The Egyptians even bred a new species of cat 3,900 to 4,000 years ago.

The Cyprus site was first excavated in 1992. Vigne expects about two more years of study there, which will probably mean the French scientist will put off owning a pet cat for a bit longer.

"Perhaps when I retire," he laughed.


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