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
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 domain 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 Europe
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. 


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