It is by turns aloof and affectionate, serene and savage, endearing and exasperating. Despite its mercurial nature, however, the house cat is the most popular pet in the world. A third of American households have feline members, and more than 600 million cats live among humans worldwide. Yet as familiar as these creatures are, a complete understanding of their origins has proved elusive. Whereas other once wild animals were domesticated for their milk, meat, wool or servile labor, cats contribute virtually nothing in the way of sustenance or work to human endeavor. How, then, did they become commonplace fixtures in our homes?
Scholars long believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to keep cats as pets, starting around 3,600 years ago. But genetic and archaeological discoveries made over the past five years have revised this scenario—and have generated fresh insights into both the ancestry of the house cat and how its relationship with humans evolved.