Saturday, 27 December 2014

Cats and humans: the cultural evolution through history

The idea for this blog post came from wandering around the archaeological museum in Istanbul, Turkey. I do no pretend to be an archaeologist or cultural historian, but I have always been fascinated by how humans interact with the animals they regularly see, and based on my postdoc research I've focussed on cats. Cats have always held a certain place in our hearts, whether it is the big wild cats or the small domesticated (sort-of) cats that run around our houses today.

Undoubtedly, ever since the first hominids there have been interactions with the felids. Most likely these would probably have been lions, leopards and probably some extinct species chasing our ancestors. However, it is possible this wasn't just early hominins getting munched by the big cats in Africa. A modern tribe in Africa (the Dorobo), are known to go and chase lions from their kills. There is obviously lots of room for debate on how successful our smaller ancestors would have been at this against predators that haven't been under pressure from humans for many millenia, but there is no reason to believe it's not a viable option.

All of this is lovely and speculative, and its not until about 30-32,000 years ago that the first evidence of humans appreciating the cats in their environment appears. The cave paintings in the decorated cave of Pont d'Arc (known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d'Arc, Ardèche), in South France show many images of cats, particularly those of of lions (probably cave lions: Panthera leo spelaea) and one described in all the images and text I could find as a panther (which as a species doesn't actually exist, so is probably a leopard).

Selection of images from Chauvet cave (from Top left is a small spotted "panther" beneath the bear, top right is lion panel, bottom is an unknown felid, probably lion.

Undoubtedly there will be several more examples of humans showing cats off in their culture before the next major transition I'm including. We will jump forward to around 7500BC, and not long after the first permanent settlements started to occur across the Middle East and Egypt. It's about this time that humans start domesticating small cats. Derived from wild cats of North Africa, Felis silvestris libyca, it is likely that their domestication was similar to that of dogs from wolves. The presence of permanent settlements and agriculture likely attracted wild cats looking for food (either as scraps, or in the form of rodents eating the crops). Undoubtedly some of these which were more bold came into contact with humans, and through selective choosing of offspring cats were to become domesticated. However, cat domestication is by no means as advanced as dogs, with many cats even to this day being feral or semi-feral for pest control on farms. Indeed most cats can revert within one generation back to being feral, whilst many dog breeds would struggle without human intervention.

With the domestication of the cat beginning, its perhaps unsurprising that they soon entered into mythical status too. Egypt was amongst the first places to raise cats to god status. Cats in Egypt were known in ancient times as Mau (I can't find out if that's because of the meow noise they make though, although there is now a breed known as an Egyptian Mau), and the first god feline (a lion) was Mafdet. Another called Bastet started off lioness-like, but through time became associated with domestic cats. It was this goddess that lead to the mummification of cats that were included in human burials. Indeed the Egyptians worshipped cats to such a level that when one died it was mourned much as the loss of a human relative within the household. However, from 390A.D. when their worship was banned, cats fell from such revered status within Egypt but are still tolerated to present, and remain admired due to their significance in Islam (particularly for their cleanliness).

The lion appears over and over again as a symbol of gods, and thus equally royalty (who were god kings/queens). This is probably due to their large size, fearsome reputation and historical presence across all of the regions where early civilisations emerged. Think back to Hercules slaying the Nemean lion (which was in Greece). Thus statues of lions appear guarding entrance ways to cities and palaces across the ancient world.
Lion statues. Left Portal lions from the Late Hittite period (8th Century BC), Right lion from Bucaleon (Boukoleon) palace, 5th century AD Istanbul.

The Greek and Romans are probably the most responsible for bringing most of the felids of the Old World to the knowledge of the general public. The Greeks with the expansion of various empires across the world, and the Romans followed suit. The Romans went a step further by bringing animals from across the empire for various spectacles and games in the arenas (whether small amphitheatres, or the Coliseum). Because of the array of them known to the Roman world, they appear throughout their culture, whether in statues or in mosaics, or even in sarcophagi.

Selection of Roman and Greek imagery of cats. Top are mosaics, left showing cheetah and lion, right showing tiger. Bottom left statuette showing a sleeping Eros on a lion skin; bottom right is Dionysus leaning on a pillar with a panther.

Indeed the Romans and Greeks collected many animals and kept them in zoos/collections for their personal enjoyment, study, and for supplying others around the world (whether for games or celebrations). This private collection would mostly die out with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and the rise of Christianity limiting the number of exhibitions where wild animals were killed. However, many royal families maintained collections through the Middles Ages. Charlemagne is known to have held lions, whilst William the Conqueror is known to have held a small collection that was expanded and King Henry I is known to have held lions, leopards and lynxes. During the reign of Henry II, his son Richard, would gain such a reputation for fearlessness in battle he would go on to gain the name Richard the Lionheart. When he became King Richard I, he would also be the one that cemented the heraldry of England with three lions.

Three lion heraldry of Richard I, which would go on to evolve into the Royal Arms of England, right.

King John who would reign following Richard I death, would officially set up the royal menagerie which would go on to hold all manner of felids, and open to the public in the first zoo (of sorts). 600 years later it would be closed by the Duke of Wellington, and the animals distributed between Dublin and London Zoo. Until this day the zoo maintains several felid species, although most individuals are now located outside of the city in the larger Whipsnade zoo. Interestingly, there is currently a break from tradition in London, with the Asiatic lions being relocated temporarily whilst their enclosure is renovated and thus there are no lions being present in London for the first time in 800 years. The lions remain very much an English thing (although sometimes they were called leopards historically on the seals/heraldry), so much so that the Three Lions remains the nick-name of the football team, and the rugby team combined from the UK and Ireland is known as the British and Irish Lions.

Having focussed very much on the UK and Europe so far, its time to spread further afield. Whilst the lion has been the symbol of European royalty for millennia, it also has represented royalty in Africa, with Ethiopia probably the best example. The lion featured until 1975 on their national flag as a symbol retained from their days as an Empire. This lion is much more significant as it is the Lion of Judah and can be traced back as a symbol of the tribe of Isrealites of Judah, descended from the 4th son of Jacob in the Torah. The royal lineage was traced (supposedly) all the way from Solomon to the leaders of Ethiopia until Haile Selassie. Due to Haile Selassie being important in Rastafarianism, the lion is an important symbol to that religion too. The Lion of Judah has also been added to the official emblem of Jurasalem in 1950 with the foundation of it (or at least the western bits officially) as the capital of Israel. Whilst jumping around, but mainly in Africa, there are some interesting tribal traditions that remain. The most famous is probably the Maasai tradition where boys were supposed to kill a lion as a show of their warrior strength before becoming a man. This tradition has mainly died out as it illegal to kill lions, but there remains great prestige for those who do kill a lion in defence of livestock.

Lion of Judah featuring on the Ethiopian flag pre-1974.

So jumping from lions and Africa, to tigers in the Far East. In China, the tiger is the symbol of the monarchy much like lions in Europe. Interestingly the shape of the stripes across the tiger head look like the symbol for king (王), and therefore the tiger is known as king of the animals (interesting as lions are the king of the jungle in the West). The tiger plays continued significance as one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, and as an important figure in some martial arts. In India, the tiger is associated with both gods Shiva and Durga, whilst in Vietnam many temples are devoted to tigers. The Tamil people adopted the tiger as their symbol and namesake whilst they fought a major war for independence in Sri Lanka before being beaten a few years ago. One fact that I didn't know but particularly enjoyed whilst doing my research for this blog (particularly on wiki it must be said) is that whilst the West has myths of werewolves, the East has myths of weretigers which shift from human to animal form and back again.

In the Americas, the jaguar (as the biggest cat there) has featured in all MesoAmerican cultures. In the Olmec culture, jaguars appeared regularly as anthropomorphised, and possibly even werejaguar like. The Maya adopted the jaguar as various gods, and as with the lion in Europe, became associated with the ruling class who often wore their pelts to distinguish them, and the ruling families often incorporated the jaguar into their names. Indeed the Maya even developed a stringed musical instrument that when played makes a noise identical to a jaguar growl. The Aztecs followed the tradition of revering the jaguar, with the elite class of soldiers being Jaguar Warriors. To attain the status a soldier had to capture 12 soldiers in 2 consecutive battles (deemed more honorable than killing).

Jaguar warrior with club laced with obsidian shards, and a shield with feathers that conferred protective powers.

The Inca also have jaguars in their mythology, and at the Temple of the Jaguar in Chichen Itza as part of the coronation the kings had to walk under a frieze of many jaguars. The jaguars are not the only big cats of the Americas, with pumas (mountain lions/cougars) also present across much of North and South America. The Inca saw the puma as a good omen for wealth, and their ancestors today still believe it lucky to see one. The native tribes of North America however were divided over pumas. Those tribes on the western side thought seeing or hearing as evil and were associated with witchcraft whilst eastern tribes (e.g. the Seminoles and Shawnee) considered them noble animals and their remains were used to make powerful hunting potions.

So that roughly covers much of the older history of cats that I found. Undoubtedly I will have missed some big details and many views on cats. Whether its black cats and their bad luck, or covering humans hunting cats, and cats hunting humans (e.g. lions of Tsavo), or indeed humans using cheetahs to hunt. I feel my views on that may be very biased against humans in that respect. After all, many of the lion subspecies are endangered (or extinct); cheetahs inhabit a tiny fraction of their former habitat; leopards have had regional extinctions; tigers have had 3 subspecies go extinct and several other subspecies critically endangered (there are more tigers in Texas than there are in India!); pumas are much reduced across a lot of its former range; and the story is the same for jaguars too. And that is just the big cats, many of the smaller ones are experiencing much the same situation.

Retraction of the tiger home ranges. Historical in pale yellow, present in green. Note in the world map the presence of tigers around the Caspian and Black Seas for which no populations survive.

It would be interesting to see how each of the former cultures would react today to how we have dealt with our cat species, and indeed how we view them in modern culture (at least here in the Western world, which I know far more than for the rest of the world and for which it would be unfair of me to speak). Would they find our zoos an impressive collection of animals that inspire awe or appreciate them as conservation/reproductive tools? Would they view them as cruel enclosures for which the animals should be freed? I feel that the former is far more likely from European cultures a long way back, but maybe not for many cultures that maintained closer roots to nature who would probably view them as the latter. Would the cultures think it appropriate that many sports teams hold felid names (e.g. Jacksonville Jaguars)? How would they view our felines in the Lion King, or even Tigger in Winnie the Pooh? Would they be intrigued by how much we love and adore our cats as pets? Would they be entertained or ashamed by the amount of time we spent taking photos of our cats and putting them on the internet? How would they feel about this:

Breading. A strange craze that went around putting cats heads into a slice of bread.

Merry Christmas all, and hope you have a great 2015!


  1. Lions Were closer to the Indian kings than tigers were. It is the lion that became the Emblem of India. In China after the introduction of the first lions, there were closer the Emperors than the tigers. Like it was in all Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and Europe in China too the lion was regarded as the king of the beasts. It was the lions that guarded the royal Palaces and official buildings. The lion's dance is still very important not only in China but in other Asiatic regions too.

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  3. There is been a connection between cats and human for a very long time write my essay for money which makes us think about it. I have seen many of these types of paintings that tell us the same thing about cats.

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