Remains of 2000-year-old cats found in Denmark

Danish archaeologists have found the skeletal remains of three ancient housecats in Aalborg, northern Jutland. At 2,000 years old, they are by far the oldest domesticated cat remains ever discovered in Denmark. The cat bones were found during an archaeological survey before construction of a new university hospital in Aalborg East. The bones of two of the three cats could be dated from their archaeological context to the 1st century. They will be radiocarbon dated to confirm their age.

The settlement was located on the foreland at the narrowest point on the Limfjord, an area which today is considered a marginal area for agriculture. During the Iron Age it was rich pasture land, however, and the settlement took advantage of the excellent grazing to raise livestock. The remains of longhouses from that period have been found at the site, with rare surviving chalk floors and equally well-preserved animals bones, teeth and other zooarchaeological material.

Excavations took place in 2014-2015, but they found so many different kinds of animal bones that scientific analysis identifying them were only completed this year. Most of the bones came from sheep and/or goats, cattle, horses, livestock that would have been raised, slaughtered and eaten in the settlement. A large number of fish bones attest to the sea-side settlment’s use of marine resources. No remains of game were found, suggesting hunting was not a major source of food for the Iron Age residents.

There are comparable animal remains at other settlements on the fjord, but the cats are unique. The Limfjord was an important thoroughfare during the Iron Age. Trade networks moved weapons, luxury goods and exotic animals from the south and west of Europe to what is today Denmark. The cats almost certainly came from the Roman Empire.

A genetic study reported in the journal Nature this September suggested that cats, all of ancient Egyptian lineage, spread over Europe in waves, reaching northern Europe by making themselves useful to the seafarers of the Viking era.

Cat populations seem to have grown in two waves, the authors found. Middle Eastern wild cats with a particular mitochondrial lineage expanded with early farming communities to the eastern Mediterranean. Geigl suggests that grain stockpiles associated with these early farming communities attracted rodents, which in turn drew wild cats. After seeing the benefit of having cats around, humans might have begun to tame these cats.

Thousands of years later, cats descended from those in Egypt spread rapidly around Eurasia and Africa. A mitochondrial lineage common in Egyptian cat mummies from the end of the fourth century bc to the fourth century ad was also carried by cats in Bulgaria, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time. Sea-faring people probably kept cats to keep rodents in check, says Geigl, whose team also found cat remains with this maternal DNA lineage at a Viking site dating to between the eighth and eleventh century ad in northern Germany.

The discovery of the three cat skeletons in an Iron Age settlement on North Jutland poses a challenge to that view. Of course, the scenarios are not mutually exclusive. It’s entirely possible cats were introduced to the fjord via trade with Rome, direct or otherwise, but didn’t establish themselves until a thousand years later.

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10 Comments »

Comment by BruceT
2016-12-28 00:59:10

No doubt from trade with today’s region of Catalonia.

 
Comment by jessica
2016-12-28 01:54:03

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Comment by dearieme
2016-12-28 07:08:51

“by far the oldest domesticated cat remains ever discovered in Denmark”: say no more.

 
Comment by Silvester Silvestris
2016-12-28 07:11:39

There are hints for domestic ‘felis silvestris lybica’ from Cyprus that are 9 millennia old. Baltic amber is traded to the Mediterranean for roughly 3 millennia. So why should any Roman late developer have brought those cats over here ?

 
Comment by Rick
2016-12-28 13:37:44

Maybe it was a chinese restaurant? :hattip:

 
Comment by BruceT
2016-12-28 19:44:15

“Ba-dah-boom! Next week Rick will be at the lovely 395 Bypass Holiday Inn Lounge in lovely Clifton, New Jersey. Good Night!”

 
Comment by JoanP
2016-12-28 20:31:58

Cats aren’t domesticated. They domesticate their “owners” (a/k/a staff).

 
Comment by debitor serf
2016-12-29 00:45:13

i agree with post above. people didn’t domestic cats, they domesticated themselves. as a cat owner, this is all too true.

 
Comment by Ron Jeremy
2016-12-29 04:37:38

A 2000 year old cat … I’d rather find a 19 year old pussy.

 
Comment by Annie Delyth
2017-01-01 22:40:08

Ron wins the prizes in both the tacky and tasteless categories this week. Congratulations, Ron. Be sure to share with all your friends.

But on to more relevant things: I have done some reading on cat DNA, but it’s been some time. Now am very curious about more recent work on cat mtDNA, so I think the rest of my evening just got shot.

A note about how previous experience can color what we expect to see: For nearly 20 years I was owned by a beautiful Norwegian Forest Cat. She was a truly magnificent 20+ pounds of Calico fur. So when I opened the drawing, I sort of expected to see something resembling her. Nope. Just looked like the average European tabby cat. Which makes sense, when I think about it.

Some time ago, I read that it was thought that in Scandinavia, some of those tabbies bred with wild cats, producing what became the Norwegian Forest Cat. But I’m not sure that cuts it. Need to do more research. I did this last night too. I have my computer set so if it is still on at midnight, it sounds an alarm to tell me to go to bed. I can’t pull all-nighters any more.

 
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