A Nomad Loved a Cat 1,000 Years Ago in Kazakhstan

The remains of a tomcat who survived terrible injuries and feasted on meat have been found in an archaeological dig at a Silk Road site

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Persian cat at the international cat exhibition at Savion sports hall marking Christmas 2016
Persian cat at the international cat exhibition at Savion sports hall marking Christmas 2016
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

The rather mangled remains of a tomcat who would have met his maker a lot sooner if he had been feral indicates that he was taken care of – dare we say loved? – more than a thousand years ago by nomads in Central Asia.

The almost complete skeleton of the tom was found in southern Kazakhstan while researchers were excavating a site along the ancient Silk Road, an international team of scientists reported Friday in Scientific Reports. The conclusion from the cat who didn’t die but survived multiple broken bones and was well nourished despite being practically toothless is that he was a cherished pet of Turkic pastoralists over 1,000 years ago.

The scientists were led by researchers from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, with colleagues from Korkyt-Ata Kyzylorda State University in Kazakhstan, the University of Tübingen and the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, who together toiled to reconstruct the cat’s life.

The cat seems to have survived more than a year, at a very conservative estimate, says Ashleigh Haruda, a researcher at the natural science collections at Martin Luther University. Ergo, people took care of him.

The cat’s remains were found at an excavation in Dzhankent, an early medieval settlement that was populated mainly by the Oghuz, a pastoralist Turkic tribe, the scientists say. The fact that the kitty’s mortal remains were well preserved indicates that he was buried, as opposed to being tossed aside or eaten. Thus his skull, parts of his upper body, his four legs and four of his vertebrae are still with us.

An X-ray of the remains shows that the unfortunate animal suffered several fractures, while isotope analysis shows that he had a rich meat diet, compared with the dogs found at the site. It bears adding that cats are fussy, when they can be, and presumably were fussy, while dogs seem less fastidious about their intake.

“It must have been fed by humans since the animal had lost almost all its teeth towards the end of its life,” Haruda said. That, by the way, could indicate that the Oghuz tribe's furry friend was well, well over a year in age.

And what kind of cat was it? A usual “domestic” cat, Felis catus, not some wild cat of the steppes that slunk into the Turkic tribal tent to steal supper. The bottom line, says Haruda, is that the cat was evidently being kept as a pet in central Asia in the eighth century C.E., even though the Oghuz were thought to be unsentimental folk who would only keep “essential” animals.

Remains of the cat found in DhzankentCredit: Ashleigh Haruda / MLU

“Dogs, for example, can watch over the herd,” she says. “They had no obvious use for cats back then.”

Not that we do now, but at least feline-besotted early farmers who discovered the charms of the cat could argue that it was catching the rodents eating their grain. In fact, there’s a theory that cats joined human households to get at the gathering mice, not that humans adopted the cats for that purpose.

The people known as Oghuz, which means “tribe” in Turkish, wouldn’t seem to have had a need for the cat; agriculture was slow to take in Central Asia. It’s possible that this tomcat predated animal husbandry in southern Kazakhstan.

Apropos the nomads along the Silk Road, they sprang another archaeological surprise last year. It seems, again based on isotopic analysis, that they ate better and richer diets than the city folk who should theoretically have had access to a wider range of foods.

It also bears adding that cats are known to move into convenient habitations without asking for permission first, as exemplified by the Reddit community “This is Not My Cat.” It could be that the evidence of the cat’s nurturing in southern Kazakhstan indicates cultural advancement in the region earlier than had been thought, or that cats are cats and he moved in, charmed the nomads and stayed. As cats do.

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