Care for cats? So did people along the Silk Road more than 1,000 years ago

By: Alex Oh

Dzhankent, Kazakhstan - In the midst of an excavation in the medieval settlement, scientist Dr Ashleigh Haruda from the Central Natural Science Collections at MLU feels a lump in the ground. She calls her team over to examine the spot. After minutes of excavating, a well-preserved skeleton of a cat is revealed. But this is no ordinary skeleton of a cat. After careful examination and study, it turns out to be the skeleton of a cat that had lived over 1000 years ago. More specifically, one that had accompanied Kazakh pastoralists along the Silk Road.

When discovered, the skeleton of the cat immediately gave scientist Haruda and her team insights about the cat’s life, including evidence of human interaction. The first piece of evidence were its broken bones. "The cat suffered several broken bones during its lifetime," says Haruda. Despite this hindrance, the cat appeared to live past its first year, indicating that the cat had probably been cared for by humans. The second piece of evidence was the state of the cat’s skeleton. Since the skeleton of the cat was very well preserved, it meant that the cat was most likely buried by humans as in most cases only individual bones of an animal are found during excavation.

In addition to this discovery, the pristine condition of the skeleton allowed Haruda, along with an international team of archaeologists and ancient DNA specialists, to discover the species of the cat and its diet. According to the ScienceDaily article, DNA analyses proved that the cat was likely a domestic cat of the Felis catus L. species. Through isotope analyses of bone samples, the scientists also learned that the cat’s diet was extremely high in protein compared to other dogs and cats from that time period. Using this information, Haruda and her team were able to draw interesting conclusions about the Oghuz people and Central Asia. While the Oghuz typically only domesticated animals that served a practical purpose like most people in Central Asia at the time, this skeleton suggests that a culture change must have occurred to cause humans to care for “exotic” animals as well and that this change probably happened much sooner than previously believed. The excavation also supports the possibility of cultural exchange among different groups of people along the Silk road.

According to ScienceDaily, this study was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the German Research Foundation (DFG), the University of Leicester and the Max Planck Society.



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