The History of House Cats: What Qualifies as Domestication?

“In its simplest form, to domesticate an animal means to tame it, through breeding and training, to need and accept the care of humans.” (Ault, 2015). By this definition, humans have been domesticating dogs for roughly 30,000 years, ever since they diverged from their wolf ancestors and came to rely on their human masters for food, shelter, and companionship (Ault, 2015). Other mammals that are commonly kept as pets or livestock have similar histories of being controlled and selectively bred by humans, with one notable exception. When it comes to cats, the question is not how long they have been domesticated, but whether they have ever truly been domesticated at all.

In 2017, an international team of scientists led by University of Leuven geneticist Claudio Ottoni published the results of a project in which they analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of over 200 cats whose dates ranged from about 9,000 years ago to the present (Newitz, 2017). The team identified two major waves of domestication that contributed to the role of cats in human society today. The first took place in the Fertile Crescent roughly 7,500 years ago, when wildcats from Anatolia started hanging around human settlements due to the presence of mice and rodents (Ottoni, 2017). In a way, these cats domesticated themselves by inadvertently building a symbiotic relationship with humans in farming communities: humans’ crops attracted rodents, and it was beneficial to both parties if cats ate those rodents (Tufts, 2017). By the time of the Mediterranean “classical era,” most ships’ captains kept a cat onboard in order to take care of vermin, which allowed these wildcats to spread along shipping routes (Figure 1) (Newitz, 2017).

Figure 1. Locations of wildcat clades in the world today. Picture by Nature Ecology & Evolution

The second major wave of domestication occurred during the Greek and Roman periods, when the popularity of Egyptian cats led to a massive migration of cats descended from the North African F. s. lybica to Europe. These Egyptian cats spread as far north as the Baltic Sea and as far east as Iran by the 8th century AD, which significantly increased the presence of f. s. lybica in the overall house cat gene pool (Ottoni, 2017).

Figure 2. A blotched tabby, possibly the first human-created cat breed. Photograph by Vladislav Starozhilov.

Ottoni’s research team did not find evidence of humans breeding cats until the Middle Ages, when the human-created “blotched tabby” (Figure 2) emerged. Compared to domestic dogs, who have been more or less completely controlled by humans for many millennia, humans have been breeding cats for less than 1,000 years (Newitz, 2017). Furthermore, since cats have not been bred as selectively as dogs, they have been able to retain their hunting skills in a way that dogs and other domestic animals have not. In fact, the genes of felis catus (the average housecat) and felis silvestris (the European wildcat) are nearly identical (Ault, 2015). With this information in mind, is it appropriate to call a house cat “domestic” if it is still capable of surviving in the wild on its own?

Additional Reading:

On the cultural history of house cats:

On the domestication of many species of pets and livestock:


Ault, Alicia.

   April 30, 2015   Ask Smithsonian: Are Cats Domesticated?, accessed November 3, 2019.

Newitz, Annalee.

   June 19, 2017   Cats are an extreme outlier among domestic animals. Ars Technica., accessed November 3, 2019.

Ottoni, C.; Neer, W. V.; Cupere, B. D.; Daligault, J.; Guimaraes, S.; Peters, J.; Spassov, N.; Prendergast, M. E.; Boivin, N. L.; Morales-Muñiz, A. et al.

   June 19. 2017   The Complex Domestication of Cats. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History., accessed November 3, 2019.

Tufts Catnip.

   August 2017   The Domestication of Cats. Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University., accessed November 3, 2019.

Garbage and Hurricane Maria

Two years after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico, both the island and its people are still in the midst of recovery. The official death toll was estimated to be around 2,975 people, households went an average of 84 days without electricity, and the damages totaled up to as much as $94.4 billion (Mercy Corps, 2019). Those are the numbers that most mainland Americans heard from the news in the aftermath of the storm, but they are not the only numbers that tell the island’s story. According to Puerto Rico’s Solid Waste Authority, the hurricane also created about “6.2 million cubic yards of waste and debris” (Kennedy, 2017).


The pure quantity of garbage created by the storm was so overwhelming that the island’s pre-existing landfills could not begin to contain it all. As a result, the government was forced to temporarily deposit debris in other places, such as soccer fields (Figure 1) and the grounds of closed public schools (Ocasio, 2018). In addition, some of the larger landfills were often left uncovered and are now overflowing, presenting a risk to the health of nearby residents (Kennedy, 2017).

Figure 1. A soccer field that has been converted into a dump. Photograph by José Jiménez.

If archaeology is the study of humans through what they leave behind, then it is also a study of the legacy of our garbage. Although the hurricane was the catalyst for the current crisis in Puerto Rico, the island’s garbage problems “predated the storm but went unnoticed until trash began to stack up outside people’s homes after Maria,” according to Jessica Seiglie of Basuro Cero, “a community organization that seeks alternatives for managing waste.” (Ocasio, 2018). One of the primary problems was that many of the dumps that weren’t regularly maintained found themselves flooded from the downpour, which prevented them from being used for weeks after the hurricane. (Ocasio, 2018). As it turns out, during assessments that began in 2002, the EPA anticipated this problem and ordered 12 of Puerto Rico’s 29 landfills (Figure 2) to close. However, “as of December 2016, the EPA reported that only Aguadilla had closed completely” (U.S. PIRG, 2017).

Figure 2. The landfill in Toa Baja. The active part of this dump was often left uncovered during the cleanup efforts after Hurricane Maria, posing a threat to the health of nearby residents. Photograph by José Jiménez

Unfortunately, closing a landfill costs approximately $200,000 per acre, and Puerto Rico is currently more than $120 billion in debt. With that said, can the island itself really be blamed for this particular problem? After all, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló requested a funding extension from FEMA for “recovery efforts including trash removal,” but the request was still being processed as of a year after the storm. (Ocasio, 2018). Since so many past mistakes and injustices led to the present catastrophe, many people have their sights set on the future. As engineer Ferdinand Quiñones put it when asked about the flooded dumps, “‘This is a legacy that we’re leaving for future generations… in 100 years or 75 years we have to start worrying about rehabilitating those sites’” (Ocasio, 2018).


Additional Reading:

For more on long-term solutions and how you can help:

For more on clean-up efforts in Puerto Rico:




Kennedy, Merrit, and Migaki, Lauren.

   December 24, 2017   After Maria, Puerto Rico Struggles Under The Weight Of Its Own Garbage. National Public Radio., accessed September 14, 2019.

Mercy Corps. 

   August 28, 2019   Quick Facts: Hurricane Maria’s Effect on Puerto Rico. Mercy Corps,, accessed September 14, 2019

Ocasio, Bianca Padró, and Rosa, Alejandra. 

   September 21, 2018   A Year Later, Hurricane Maria Debris a Lingering Concern in Puerto Rico. Orlando Sentinel., accessed September 14, 2019.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund, and Frontier Group. 

   October 25, 2017   Solid Waste in the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria. U.S. PIRG. Waste – Hurricane Maria – USPIRG.pdf, accessed September 14, 2019.