Richard Collins: Pause to reflect on history of cats in Cyprus

Richard Collins: Pause to reflect on history of cats in Cyprus

According to the country’s Cat Protection & Welfare Society (Catpaws), there are 1.5m domestic cats in Cyprus, an island with only 1.2m human residents. During a visit last month, 14 pussies converged on us at a cat feeding station near the ancient ruins of Amathus; they thought my wife was one of the dedicated cat ladies who feed them.

Felines are more conspicuous than birds in Cyprus; only grey crows and feral pigeons, too big for cats to attack, are really common. Even sparrows are scarce. Are cats partly to blame for this avian poverty?

Claims that a saint exterminated snakes are de rigueur on islands. St Patrick did a thorough job in Ireland. St Paul, who was bitten by one, was less successful in Malta; four snake species survive there. In 327, St Helena founded the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats, close to what is now the island’s premier nature reserve, Akrotiri Lake. It’s said she imported 1,000 cats from Egypt to kill the island’s snakes. But the serpents had the last laugh; there are nine snake species in Cyprus today.

A curious exhibit at Limassol’s archaeological museum challenges the claim that cats were first introduced by the holy nun. Part of an ancient burial, discovered at a site about 6km east of the city, has been reconstructed.

The deceased, who lived about 9,500 years ago, was interred with flint tools and polished stone axes. But this grave is unlike any other of its time; the body was buried with a cat. J D Vigne and colleagues, reporting the find in the journal Science in 2004, describe how “a small pit or grave had been deliberately dug out, and the body of a cat placed in it”. 

The animal was interred deliberately; otherwise, its bones would have been dispersed.

Examination of the remains shows that the cat, large compared to those found in later millennia, was about eight months old when it died. The sex is unknown. There are no marks of butchery on its bones. Why it was interred is a mystery but, the authors claim, it “emphasises the animal as an individual” and “could also imply a strong association between a human and a cat”. 

This is the earliest evidence of close association between a cat and a person found anywhere.

Not only did the find challenge the legend of St Helena, it set the proverbial cat among the palaeontological pigeons. 

There are 1.5m domestic cats in Cyprus, an island with only 1.2m human residents.
There are 1.5m domestic cats in Cyprus, an island with only 1.2m human residents.

Cats, the experts used to think, would not be domesticated until the Egyptians took a shine to them 5,000 years after the Cyprus burial.

Wild cats are not native to Cyprus but ancient feline bones, including a lower jaw, have been found on the island. It’s unlikely, however, that they were widely domesticated, because other wild creatures, such as foxes, were also imported.

Holy men and women have ambiguous attitudes to snakes. The Chi Rho page of The Book of Kells shows a cat preventing the Eucharist from being nibbled by mice. In 1233, however, Pope Gregory IX identified cats with Satan. 

The unfortunate pets would be tortured and killed when their female owners were accused of witchcraft.

  • J. D. Vigne et al. Early taming of the cat in Cyprus. Science 2004.

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