The Cat In History
Cats can be traced back to ancient times in Egypt and Rome. About 4,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians carved wooden figures of cats. They also made furniture and jewelry in the shape of cats. In ancient Rome, the cat was a symbol of liberty. Scientists believe that the earliest cat was probably an animal called Miacis, which lived about 55 million years ago. Fossils indicate the Miacis looked somewhat like a sease. Scientists believe that members of the cat family as we know it today began to appear about 40 million years ago. The ancestors of the African wildcat, the Kaffir cat of North Africa, and the European wildcat were probably also the ancestors of today's domestic cats. Miacis was somewhat martin-like in appearance. The distinguishing characteristic was the teeth, which set the basis for all modern carnivores. The dental plan had incisors, canines, premolars, carnassials, and molars in each jaw. The carnassials were used for the cutting of flesh in a scissor-like action and were vital in the killing of other predators. Miacis was a short-term creature, quickly evolving under the pressure of competition into several different miacids, each of which went on to become a differing type of carnivore. By 45 million years ago, one of these differing creatures was profelis, the forerunner of all cats. By 40 million years ago, profelis had evolved into hoplophoneus and dinictis. The primary differences between hoplophoneus and dinictis were in jaw structure. In hoplophoneus the upper canines increased drastically in length to become stabbing weapons, with corresponding changes in the jaw hinge to allow the mouth to open extra widely. In dinictis the upper and lower canines became more balanced and the jaw hinge developed more muscle. Both were halfway between a cat and a civit in appearance, long in the body and tail, short in the legs; both had definitely cat-like heads; and both were plantigrade: modern cats are digitigrade and walk on their toes, good for running, while people are plantigrade and walk upon their whole foot, good for standing. About 25 million years ago, hoplophoneus had evolved into smilodon, the famous saber-toothed tiger. Smilodon was definitely a cat in appearance, walking upon his toes and all, but had a somewhat flattened head with a small brain pan (he wasn't very bright). Smilodon was the end of his line, and vanished some 12,000 years ago. The exaggerated tooth structure of the hoplophoneans and especially smilodon was a response to the evolution of the titanotheres, the giant mammals of the early Cenozoic. These animals were huge, with correspondingly thick and/or shaggy coats, which the dagger-like canines of the saber-toothed tiger could pierce to deliver a killing blow. The largest of the titanotheres, and the largest land mammal ever, was the ground sloth baluchitherium, which stood 18 feet at the shoulder (the height of a tall giraffe), and whose head reached 26 feet off the ground. While hoplophoneus was evolving into smilodon, dinictis was also evolving. Dinictis itself had one seemingly trivial, but really very fundamental characteristic: it had three eyelids. Modern cats, and many related species, have three eyelids, the third being the haw, or nictitating membrane. Dinictis evolved into pseudailurus, which was definitely a cat in appearance, not too different from some of the more extreme species of modern cats. Its teeth were identical in structure to those of the modern cat and it was digitigrade, walking on its toes (though not quite as well as the modern cat), but it still had a small brain pan. Some 18 million years ago, the oldest of the modern genera of cats evolved from pseudailurus: acinonyx. The modern cheetah is the only species of acinonyx surviving today and is actually little changed from its early ancestors. Some 12 million years ago, pseudailurus had evolved into felis, the modern lesser cats. Two of the first modern cats to appear were felis lunensis, Martelli's cat, and felis manul, Pallas' cat. These cats had larger brains, surprisingly human- like in structure, and were in all ways true modern cats. Martelli's Cat has become extinct, but Pallas' Cat is still very much with us, the oldest living species of genus felis. By 3 million years ago, the last of the modern genera of cats evolved, panthera, the greater or roaring cats, to which the tigers, lions, leopards and their kin belong. Somewhere between the First and Second Ice Ages, 900,000 to 600,000 years ago, a very special cat, felis sylvestris, made its appearance, and is still with us as the European Wildcat. During the Second Ice Age, the glaciers moved down from the north, driving him southward. At the same time, the Mediterranean and Black Seas were greatly reduced in size, providing many land bridges to the south into Africa and to the east around the foot of the Urals into Asia, allowing him to extend his into those regions. As the ice receded the seas rose and the climates changed, the immi- grant species became isolated from each other by water, deserts, and mountains. Over time, those species of wildcat isolated in Africa became the Sand Cat, the African Wildcat, the Forest Cat, and the Black-Footed Cat, while the Asian version became the Chinese Desert Cat. There were, of course, several other subspecies that, for one reason or another, didn't survive the changing landscape and climate. One of felis sylvestris' many offshoots was felis lybica, the African Wildcat. He is still with us, but, more importantly, he is the immediate and primary ancestor of all domestic cats. The Egyptian worshiped cats as gods. They believed the goddess Bast, who represented the life-giving heat of the sun;, had the head of a cat. An Egyptian who harmed a cat was punished. If a person killed a cat, the punishment was usually death. The Egyptians made dead cats into mummies and buried them in cat cemeteries. They also put mummified rats and mice and little saucers of mil in each cat's grave. Scientists have found many of these mummies. Phoenician traders, carrying Egyptian cats on their ships probably brought the first domesticated cats to
about 900 BC The crossing of Egyptian cats with European wildcats produced the domestic cat of Europe. European explorers, colonists, and traders brought domestic cats to the America during the 1700's. These animals became the ancestors of most of the cats that live in the United States today.