A popular saying claims that cats choose their people, not the other way around. This feline seduction has been traced back more than 1,000 years thanks to a newly detailed ancient cat skeleton, a new study reports. The skeleton reveals that humans traveling the Silk Road trade routes likely cared for cats along the way, treating them as pets similar to the way humans treat them today.
A team of researchers studied the bones of a small cat — the same kind that you can find in homes around the world — to learn about its life more than 1,000 years ago. The skeleton is described as nearly complete; it was discovered during an excavation in Kazakhstan, specifically in a deserted city called Jankent/Dzhankent.
This region had once been an early medieval settlement, home to a pastoralist Turkic tribe called the Oghuz. The discovery of a nearly complete cat skeleton — particularly one so well-preserved — was described as surprising and rare, giving researchers a unique opportunity to learn about the role of these cats in medieval life.
The skeleton revealed a hard life, one marked by multiple broken bones that had later healed. The cat lived to a more advanced age, however, indicating that it much have received care from the humans who lived in the region at that time. It’s reasonable to assume that this care wasn’t limited to just this cat, but rather was extended to others, as well.
This cat also ate a diet very high in protein despite having lost nearly all of its teeth by the time it had died, indicating that humans were mashing food for it. As well, DNA from the skeleton revealed that this particular animal was a domesticated cat, not a wild steppe cat. The care of this cat was something of a cultural change for the tribe in that region, indicating that they cared for the cat as a pet, not simply as a utility.
Team lead Dr. Ashleigh Haruda explained, “The Oghuz were people who only kept animals when they were essential to their lives. Dogs, for example, can watch over the herd. They had no obvious use for cats back then.”