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Domestic cats may have lived over 1,000 years ago along the Silk Road

By: April Feng

Many of us are familiar with our furry feline friends—cats! The presence of pets and animals as companions has been deeply ingrained into modern-day culture, with cute cat videos and stories of dogs saving owners all over the internet. However, for ancient societies focused on survival, animal companionship was typically unheard of, at least until recently. New discoveries by researcher Ashleigh Haruda indicate otherwise.

Recently, Dr. Haruda and a research team excavated Dzhankent, Kazakhstan, home of the pastoralist Oghuz people that lived nearly 1000 years ago. After discovering the nearly complete remains of a cat, Haruda and her team concluded that the cat would have likely been a domestic cat of the Oghuz people.

Although this deduction had previously seemed unlikely, a number of factors led the researchers to their final conclusion. To start, analysis of the cat’s bone structure revealed the multiple fractures and broken bones the cat had suffered from. Researchers also discovered that the animal had lost nearly all its teeth. Bone samples revealed even more information; the cat, unlike other animals found at the site, had an unusually high level of protein intake in its diet. According to Haruda, “All of the evidence taken together, but especially the bones, indicate that this animal suffered a lot of trauma in its life, but not only did it survive, it continued to thrive.”

This discovery held even more significance regarding the cultural development of the region. Haruda explains, "The Oghuz were people who only kept animals when they were essential to their lives. Dogs, for example, can watch over the herd. They had no obvious use for cats back then.” So then, why did the Oghuz care for cats? The answer lies in the surrounding regions of the Dhzankent settlement.

As a part of the Silk Road, a vital network of trade and knowledge between the East and West, the Oghuz settlement may have been influenced in animal husbandry and domestication by other cultures along the route. This would have resulted in a broadening of cultural ideas and customs.

In the grander scheme of things, this new discovery may also serve to reinforce the ideas regarding the monumental exchange of cultures that occurred along the Silk Road, and the cultural changes that still impact our world today.

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