Though not quite mans best friend, the cat has a long history with humans. Ancient Egyptians demonstrated a particular fondness for felines, creating elaborate engravings and drawings featuring them. Researchers suspected earlier people may have tamed cats, but evidence was scant. Now the discovery of a feline funeral plot on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus pushes back the first friendly association of man and cat by more than 5,000 years to 9,500 years ago.

Jean-Denis Vigne of the CNRS-National Museum of Natural History in Paris and his colleagues uncovered in the Neolithic village of Shillourokambos a burial site containing the remains of a human and a cat in close proximity together with a variety of offerings. "The association of this burial with both the sea shells and the cat grave strengthens the idea of a special burial indicating a strong relationship between cats and human beings," Vigne says. "Possibly tamed cats were devoted to special activities or special human individuals in the village." The remains of the eight-month-old cat were located just 40 centimeters from the human bones, and both were buried at the same depth and in the same orientation. The feline skeleton was complete and showed no signs of butchering, the authors note, which emphasizes the animal as an individual.

The cat, a member of the Felis silvestris species, was significantly larger than todays housepets. (The image above shows a modern-day African wildcat (F. silvestris lybica).) How the animal died--and whether it was sacrificed in order to be buried with its human partner--remains unclear, and further research is needed to unravel the intricacies of the relationship between cats and people during this time period. Vigne posits that the humans most likely recognized the creatures as workers rather than companions. "It seems that cats probably came more and more frequently into villages where grain stocks attracted numerous mice," he explains. "I think that human beings rapidly understood that they could use cats for reducing the number of mice."