Today, a cat in Cyprus. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
The island of Cyprus nestles into the
northeast corner of the Mediterranean. Its long
eastern peninsula points straight at the border
between Syria and Turkey, only eighty miles away.
The Island is rugged and mountainous. The date of
the first human settlement on Cyprus is debated,
but we're certain of a human presence starting
about ten thousand years ago.
Those first settlers lasted two thousand years.
They were pretty primitive at first, but they soon
developed typical Neolithic skills. They made
homes, art, and utensils, from stone. They wove
cloth and they did some farming. They ate cereals
and lentils. They hunted deer as well as pygmy
elephant and pygmy hippopotamus.
They made no ceramics. They had no cattle. But they
did have dogs. The people's lifespan was some 35
years and they stood about five feet tall. Infant
mortality was high. It was a hard life.
Then, around eight thousand years ago, they
vanished. We don't know why. But the island lay
vacant for fifteen hundred years. Then a new
population moved in with more advanced skills and a
much better lifestyle.
Now a remarkable detail turns up among those first
inhabitants. Anthropologists, excavating a very
early settlement, have found a gravesite. The
person (male or female, we do not know) had status.
Polished stone tools and seashells -- emblems of
wealth -- surround the body.
And, buried alongside the human is a
cat. The reason that's remarkable is
that we'd all thought the first pet cats were
Egyptian -- much later than this. So then: was this
Its breed is felis
silvestris -- the wild ancestor of the
Egyptian cats. Its remains show no evidence of
having been hunted down or butchered. This cat is
entirely intact -- obviously a part of the wealth
accompanying the honored dead.
So we wonder: Was this beast tame? By the way, the
cats we know and love are largely tame; but many
experts argue that they aren't really domesticated.
They don't enter into human social life the way a
horse or a dog might. Other questions begin
nagging: Did this cat serve the community by
reducing the rat population? Did it purr in its
Everything that puzzles us about this
almost-ten-thousand-year-old cat -- this
cat-in-the-wrong-place -- seems to've puzzled
writer Joyce Carol Oates about her own cat. She
The wildcat is the real cat, the soul of the
domestic cat; unknowable to human beings, yet he
exists inside our household pets, who have long ago
seduced us with their seemingly civilized
We can only guess at the soul of this cat.
Those two curled up skeletons continue their
separate, but parallel, play -- human and beast,
together, yet apart. It's the same with our black
cat: ignoring us, always in the same room, the same
bed. She purrs, but her mind is in another place.
Where? Maybe back in Cyprus.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J.-D. Vigne, J. Guilaine, K. Debue, L. Haye, and P.
Gerard, Early Taming of the Cat in Cyprus,
Science, Vol. 304, 9 April, 2004, pg. 259.
The CNN article.
The Following websites provide information about the
prehistory of Cyprus:
Ancient Cyprus Project and
The Khirokitia culture
Ten thousand years later -- still thinking her own
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.