Understandably intrigued, Li followed suit, and thank heavens he did. The moment he set foot into the temple, a blinding bolt of lightning smote the tree where he had taken cover, which promptly burst into flames. The lucky cat, Li proclaimed, had saved his life, and is thus believed to be a bearer of good luck, happiness, and harmony.
In stark contrast, feline characters in European folklore were frequently portrayed as antagonists who were in some way associated with the devil and other malevolent spirits. The Cat Sìth, for instance, is one of the oldest characters in Celtic and Scottish lore. The gargantuan feline, who had shaggy, matted black fur with a distinctive white tuft on its chest and beady, blood-red eyes, prowled the streets late at night, on the hunt for freshly departed human souls. At funerals, attendees played games and blasted blaring, almost jarring music, known as “coronach” to fend off the Cat Sìth – in some accounts, along with its seven other minions. Fires were lit and platters of catnip laid out in every room excluding the chamber in which the corpse was housed to distract the soul-stealing cats. During Christmas Eve in Iceland, villagers of all ages dressed up in their finest attire, or at the very least, a pair of new socks, so as to keep the ghastly Jólakötturinn, also known as the “Yule Cat,” at bay. The monstrous feline, its greasy soot-gray fur stained with blood, loomed over the village cottages and had a taste for human flesh – in particular those who sported tattered old clothes.
Ancient legends aside, to gain an even firmer grasp of man’s age-old affinity with cats, one must first rewind to the very beginning and explore the origins of domesticated felines and the conditions that led to the merging of these two worlds.
The domestic cat is believed to be a direct, albeit distant descendant of the Felidae family of the Carnivora order that roamed what is now the Asian continent approximately 10-15 million years ago. This Felidae family were themselves progenies of the earliest cat-like mammals that lived during the Eocene epoch around 56 to 60 million years ago, which eventually branched out into two subfamilies. The first was the Machairodontinae, also known as “saber-toothed cats,” which later spawned the Pantherinae, or large cats such as lions, tigers, and panthers, and the second the Felinae, or “conical-toothed cats,” which gave rise to smaller felines such as pumas, cheetahs, bobcats, and of course, the domestic cat. Apart from the obvious size difference, the subfamilies are distinguishable by unique evolutionary traits. Cats in the Pantherinae subfamily can roar, but cannot purr; those in the latter subfamily, on the other hand, can purr, but are not equipped to roar.
Ancient felids were the most sophisticated of all the mammals from an evolutionary standpoint. The claws of these early felines – a characteristic retained by all modern-day cats – unlike most other carnivores, were retractable, which protected their knife-like nails against wear and tear. Their claws were, in a sense, their livelihoods, for they were used to restrain and rupture the spinal cords of their prey, as well as climbing and as a means of defense.
Both the Machairodontinae and the Felinae felids had lengthier body-to-skull ratios in comparison to their present-day counterparts, accompanied by longer muzzles, shorter and more compact necks, and far longer and more protuberant, scimitar-like canines. Modern-day cats inherited their great vision, keen hearing, and remarkably sensitive noses, as well as their quadrupedal manner of locomotion and habit of walking on their toes, from their prehistoric ancestors. The hind legs of these felids were also longer and more powerful than their forelimbs, which allowed them to propel themselves to great heights and to charge after their prey. The disproportion of their limbs, unfortunately, prevented them from sprinting long distances.
With the exception of lions – the only big cats known to live in groups, otherwise known as “prides” – virtually all wild felines from the past and present are classed as solitary and nocturnal animals. Early felids, like their descendants, were highly cautious and territorial creatures. Similar to the felines of today, they rubbed their heads against the trees and grass within their respective territories, releasing pheromones via scent glands, or they urinated in specific spots to mark their turfs. They slept, hunted, and amused themselves with no company, and only pursued other felines to fulfill their mating needs. By the midway mark of the Pliocene Epoch around 3 million years ago, the descendants of the Felidae, who were diversifying and reproducing at a robust pace, were dispersed across all continents barring Australia and the North and South Poles. The widespread and large-scale relocation of these prehistoric cats was most likely occasioned and determined by the migratory patterns of their prey.
The split between the Felidae family and the Felis genus occurred six to seven million years ago. The Felis species were products of sympatric speciation, which was, as defined by the Biology Dictionary, a “[natural process] that occurs when two groups of the same species live in the same geographic location, but…evolve differently until they can no longer interbreed and [become] different species.” Domestic cats, on the contrary, were the result of artificial speciation – a term assigned to new species and breeds invented by humans.
The Felis silvestris, or simply, the “wildcat,” an offshoot of the Felis genus, originated in Eurasia and Africa. Wildcats, who had longer, more weasel-like torsos, usually weighed anywhere between 8-11 pounds. They wore silken coats of short pewter-gray or sandy-brown fur lined with dark stripes, and thick and bushy, raccoon-like tails marked by even broader black stripes to match, and they boasted a wider and more close-set pair of pricked ears. There were five toes on the front paws of these untamed felines, but only four digits on their rear paws. The unusual coloration and markings of the Felis silvestris, which allowed them to blend into their forested surroundings, most closely resembled that of modern-day tabbies, most identifiable by the special M-shaped markings on the center of their foreheads and the black stripes on their cheeks, reminiscent of warpaint.
In 2007, author of The Taming of The Cat Carlos Driscoll and his colleagues scrutinized the genetic samples of 979 wildcats and domestic felines ranging from southern Africa, to Azerbaijan, to Mongolia and other parts of the Old World, so as to pinpoint which of the Felis silvestris subspecies was the most recent progenitor of the house cat, otherwise referred to as the “Felis catus.” In the process, the team determined that there were at least five subspecies of the Felis silvestris, which were as follows: the Felis silvestris silvestris, AKA the “European wildcat,” which parted from the silvestris lineage 1.4 to 1.09 million years ago; the Felis silvestris lybica, or “Sardinian wildcat”; the Felis silvestris ornata, also called the “Central Asian wildcat”; the Felis silvestris bieti, or the “Chinese desert cat”; and the Felis silvestris cafra, the “sub-Saharan African wildcat.”
The researchers concluded that the Sardinian wildcat, which diverged from the silvestris around 150,000 years ago, was the first of the silvestris subspecies to be tamed by humans, and as such, if crudely put, was the father of all modern house cats. The Sardinian wildcat, alternatively referred to as the “African wildcat,” was originally native to the northeastern part of the African continent, and gradually wandered into the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, and later, Western and Central Asia. These Middle Stone Age felines had the proportions of a present-day domestic cat, but they had wispier, more delicate fur than their modern equivalents, a longer and narrower, tapering ringed tail, and more elongated ears with more rounded tips that skewed inwards. The color and density of their coats were geographically conditioned. Those in sandier locales had beige or rusty-colored fur covered in solid, thin, squiggly dark stripes, as opposed to the coat of a Felis silvestris ornata, which was lined with neat rows of dashes and spots; its tail, however, bore thick, concrete stripes. Those in more verdant areas came in grayish-brown colors with subtle greenish tints, and were overlaid with black stripes and splotches. The fur on the backs of their ears were also marked with a splash of black or a reddish-brown splotch.