A Purrfect Match – Archaeology of the Domestic Cat

When we think of the domestication of dogs, an easy picture comes to mind: humans and dogs hunting side by side. Cats, on the other hand, are shrouded in a bit more mystery. How did these highly temperamental creatures end up in the laps of pharaohs and on the couches of our homes today?

Studies suggest that the relationship between cats and humans began in the N

Felis Lybica (African Wildcat)

eolithic period, with the Felis Lybica (or African Wildcat) moving with early farmers to the European continent. Evidence for this comes from the discovery of Felis Lybica bones in Poland dated between 4200 – 2300 BCE (Sloat 2020). This aligns with the transition of humans to an intensely sedentary lifestyle focused on agriculture. Such a lifestyle would certainly draw the attention of rodents, evident by the many documented accounts of rodent infestation in farming communities. Cats, drawn by the large supply of prey, would have begun interaction and dependency on human activity, leading to domestication.

However, this is not the definitive start of domestication for cats. A study by Dr. Krajcarz was conducted by analyzing the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in bone collagen. It revealed that although cats certainly benefited from human activity (evidenced by traces of fertilizer), much of their diet was still from independent hunting (Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun 2020). Over a long period, selective breeding would likely turn these wildcats into the domesticated cats we know and love today.

Further east, we can observe the possible domestication of cats through Egyptian art. One of the first artistic interpretations of cats is shown in the tomb of Baqet III, around 2100 BCE, which depicts a cat at odds with a rat (Bileta 2021). This also lends credence to the theory that cats were lured by the rats that surrounded human civilizations. A change occurred around 1450 BCE when tomb art began showing the cats in indoor settings, alongside royalty (Bileta 2021). Cats began to be depicted on or near chairs, suggesting some form of domestication.

A cat is depicted at its owner’s feet. Interestingly enough, all earliest domesticated cats were striped. Spotted cats did not emerge until much later

A shift away from art can be found in the sarcophagus of a cat called Ta-Miu, the pet of the pharaoh’s son Prince Thutmose. The cat was buried similarly to nobles at the time, suggesting that the ancient Egyptians began to regard cats as very important pets. Of course, this is also obvious when we look at Egyptian deities with feline features. Most famous is the goddess Bastet, who was depicted both with a domesticated cat’s head and as a cat herself. Interestingly, Bastet initially had a lioness’ head, switching to a cat as cats gained prominence in Egyptian society (Bileta 2021).

There may yet be evidence that dates feline domestication further back, but this seems unlikely given that cats were not likely to be buried until much later.


Links of Interest:





Bileta, Vedran. “Cats in Ancient Egypt: The Wild Companions Who Became Gods.” TheCollector, November 29, 2021. https://www.thecollector.com/ancient-egypt-cat-gods-goddesses-bastet/.

Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun. “5,000 Years of History of Domestic Cats in Central Europe.” Phys.org. Phys.org, July 13, 2020. https://phys.org/news/2020-07-years-history-domestic-cats-central.html#:~:text=Nonetheless%2C%20the%20earliest%20cat%20remains,domestic%20cats%20in%20Central%20Europe.

Sloat, Sarah. “Cats Chose Humans Very Early: Archaeological Testing Has Upended a Common Historical Principle.” Inverse. Inverse, July 13, 2020. https://www.inverse.com/science/are-cats-even-domesticated.

Bodies in the Bog: Revealing Early European Rituals

The lands of northern Europe are peppered with muddy bogs full of decaying life. On the surface, these wetlands seem like nothing more than pools of moss and disease, but underneath lies a real treasure: bog bodies. These bodies have been exceptionally well preserved by this unlikely environment, even down to their last meal. 

A look at the layers of a peat bog. A body can be trapped and preserved for thousands of years.

So how does this phenomenon occur? The secret to their remarkable preservation is a specific moss called sphagnum. The moss itself creates an insulated dome that prevents most oxygen from filtering through to the land beneath it. Not only that, it acts as a sponge that absorbs calcium and magnesium from its surroundings, resulting in a more acidic environment that is toxic to natural decomposers like bacteria and fungi. Even in death, the moss acts to preserve the bodies by releasing a chemical called Sphagnan that both eliminates bacteria and gives these bog bodies their signature leathery brown/black skin.

These bodies tell tales that bring up a lot of questions for the archaeologists that discover them. Primarily, most of the bodies have telltale marks of violent death, whether through hanging, stabbings, or blunt force trauma. On occasion, the bodies even show multiple fatal wounds, baffling researchers further.

The mummified head of the aforementioned Lindow Man. A notch can be seen where a blunt object fractured his skull.

One of the more significant bodies in this puzzle is the Lindow Man. Discovered by peat cutters in 1984, this corpse was found to be a young man who lived around the 1st century A.D. Researchers identified three different causes of death: he was hit in the head, garroted, then had his throat slit. The discovery of water in his lungs also indicates this wasn’t simply somewhere his body was dumped. He was intentionally killed far out into the bog, though the exact reason for this is unknown.

Some have speculated that these bodies may have been a result of some kind of violent ritual based on cultural beliefs surrounding the bogs. While we may not see bogs are particularly useful today, in the Iron Age, bogs were a vital part of their society. Some professionals theorize that these societies may have believed that the bogs had some connection to the underworld or a higher power, and that ritual death would often occur in bogs as a result. The details of Lindow Man’s last meal (a charred griddle cake) lend credence to this theory as well. An old British ritual has people pull griddlecakes from a bag, with the one that pulled the charred cake put to death. 

As Europe closes down its bogs due to peat harvesting’s adverse effect on climate change, there will certainly be fewer bog bodies to be discovered and investigated. The mystery of the bog bodies might just remain a mystery for a little longer.

Links of Interest

Video Documentary of North American Bog Bodies

Specifics About Lindow Man


Magazine, Smithsonian. “Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 May 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/europe-bog-bodies-reveal-secrets-180962770/.

Mancini, Mark. “Peat Bogs Are Freakishly Good at Preserving Human Remains.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 24 Aug. 2022, science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/archaeology/peat-bogs-are-freakishly-good-at-preserving-human-remains.htm.

“The Mystery of the Human Sacrifices Buried in Europe’s Bogs.” BBC Future, BBC, www.bbc.com/future/article/20220907-the-mystery-of-the-human-sacrifices-buried-in-europes-bogs.