Millions of people today adore their pet cats, and the feline obsession spans back more than a millennium, scientists now believe.
Evidence from the ancient Silk Road reveals domestic cats were kept as pets by nomadic livestock herders more than 1,000 years ago.
Animal bones found in Kazakhstan, along what used to be the vast transcontinental trade route connecting the East and West, indicate the feline was well cared for.
It provides some of the earliest evidence of cats being kept as pets, with most domesticated animals serving a purpose, either by working or as food.
The animal was assessed by a team of university scientists and the study reveals the cat dined on a diet rich in protein, indicating it was fed by humans.
It also suffered broken bones at some point, but they healed up, indicating it was cared for by people who nursed the animal back to health.
Despite serving no practical use to the nomadic people who kept it, the cat was found buried – suggesting it had been intentionally put in the ground.
The discovery surprised researchers who thought it was ‘remarkable’ that cats were already being kept as pets in this region around the 8th century AD.
Previously, it was believed cats only became domesticated pets much later on.
Dr Ashleigh Haruda from the Central Natural Science Collections at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, led the study into the tomcat’s life.
During a research stay in Kazakhstan, the scientist examined the findings of an excavation in Dzhankent, a medieval settlement in the south of the country.
This region is harsh and was previously populated by the hardy Oghuz people, a pastoralist Turkic tribe.
It was in this remote location that the complete skeleton was found carefully buried, an anomaly in archaeology.
Normally, if an animal has died in the wild, a few bones are found as the carcass is ravaged by the weather or scavengers.
This preserved many bones of the male cat, including its lower jaw, parts of its upper body, legs and four vertebrae.
With the help of an international team of archaeologists and ancient DNA specialists an examination of the tomcat’s skeleton revealed astonishing details about its life.
A series of assessments, including 3D imaging and X-rays, were conducted to learn more about the cat’s existence.
Dr Haruda said: ‘This cat suffered a number of fractures, but survived.
‘Isotope analyses of bone samples also provided information about the cat’s diet. Compared to the dogs found during the excavation and to other cats from that time period, this tomcat’s diet was very high in protein.
‘It must have been fed by humans since the animal had lost almost all its teeth towards the end of its life.’
DNA analyses also proved that the animal was indeed likely to be a domestic cat of the Felis catus L. species and not a closely related wild steppe cat.
Haruda said: ‘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.
‘The fact that people at the time kept and cared for such ‘exotic’ animals indicates a cultural change, which was thought to have occurred at a much later point in time in Central Asia.’
The study is available in the journal Scientific Reports.