We know that cats have already conquered the internet with their cuteness and silly behaviour, but in the past they have also conquered lands! Well . . . not likely, but the latest and largest genetic study of cats revealed how our fluffy friends spread across Europe, Asia, and Africa, and even sailed aboard Viking ships.
The world’s first large study into ancient cat DNA reveals that the earliest ancestors of these furry fellows reached Eurasia and Africa at the same time as early farmers (during the Neolithic), and were later helped by sailors, including the Vikings. It was already known that cats reached the shores of Europe through the mediterranian sea during the Bronze Age, but now this study shows that cats have landed in European soils in a much distant past.
Scientists sequenced the DNA from 290 cats from more than 30 archaeological excavations throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa, including the remains of a cat in a Viking grave in northern Germany.
But why were the Vikings so important in spreading these feline conquerors? Well, cats have their importance in Norse mythology, and were often connected to specific deities. Of course I will mention the goddess Freyja, notoriously known as the goddess of love. In the Norse Mythology she has two cats that pull her carriage. And, of course, there is that one tale when Thor visited Utgard and he tried to lift the gigantic Utgard-Loki’s cat. It turned out to be a serpent, the Midgard Serpent, which not even Thor could lift; a spell was at work in this tale. Suffice to say, in this tale as well as Freyja’s cats, there is a connection between cats and magic, because Freyja herself is also one of the few Norse goddesses to be closely connected to magic and Seiðr work – a type of sorcery which was practiced in Norse society, closely related to shamanic practices which I will not delve much into the subject because we are talking about cats dear friends.
There are other tales about cats in the Norse mythology, so it’s safe to say Vikings cared about their cats because even the gods had them. When cultures include a certain animal in their mythologies, or in their cultural and traditional code which defines them as a people, it shows us that these animals where very important to these societies, which is why they gained a connection with the gods in the first place.
Anyhow, in this new study, samples were taken from the remains of cats dating to as recently as the 18th century and as far back as the early Stone Age. Around 8,900 to 3,900 years ago, when Europeans had not yet adopted farming and still led a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
It seems that cats spread throughout the old world in two waves. The first wave arrived with the earliest farmers in the eastern Mediterranean, as indicated by the discovery of 9,500 years old graves in Cyprus. It contained the remains of a cat and suggests that the relationship between humans and cats dates all the way back to the early days of the Neolithic period. The second wave took place thousands of years later as cats from Egypt quickly spread to the rest of Africa and Asia. Their genetic markers were discovered in cats from Bulgaria, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa that also date to around the same time.
It is possible that the friendship between people and cats arose as early farmers began to store grain. The grain attracted rodents, which in turn attracted wild cats, and so began the mutually beneficial relationship with our feline friends. Yes, cats to care of rats and so the grain was safe. This is exactly like the relationship of humans with early dogs. The domestication of wolves and wild canine creatures created the best friend humans could ever have – a guardian to ward of dangerous animals and other predators. In a subtle way, cats also made their way towards humans, showing their abilities and their usefulness, thus becoming equally important. Cats also helped to keep down the numbers of rats and mice on ships, during long voyages at sea, so it’s perfectly understand why cats were brought by sailors.
A Viking grave, discovered in northern Germany, is believed to date back to somewhere between the 8th to 11th century CE, and there was a cat in it which helped in the study. A search in the Natural History Museum of Denmark database of archaeological finds showned that there is no doubt that cats were commonplace inthe Iron Age and Viking Age of Denmark and that people commonly wore cat skins by the late Viking Age.
With certainty, there were domestic cats back then, in the Viking society, because of their size which is related to the type of life of a household cat. Wild cats are larger and their bone-structure is much different, whilst dosmetic cats are smaller and are nowehre near the size of their wild cousins.
According to archaeological research there are also evidences that cats made it to Greenland, which points to the first Europeans to step into those lands – Vikings. Vikings carried cats in their longships probably for the same reason as everybody else, but maybe also because their connection to the goddess Freyja. Mayhaps it was easiler to bring domesticated creatures to a new land, rather than other animals more wild in nature and also connected to magic.