If not for cats would we have bread? On Saturday June 4th at 2 p.m. at the Los Angeles Bread Festival at Grand Central Market I’m going to deliver a talk on the connection between cats and grain. The connection is a basic one: store grain and you get vermin. Then you need cats.
But, in the course of preparing for this lecture, I discovered that the commonly held narrative of cat domestication is an unsubstantiated fiction. That narrative goes something like this: in a golden, ancient time Egyptians revered cats, Medieval folks persecuted them and enlightened 18th century philosophers rediscovered them. This is the feline version of the myth of progress whose ultimate destination is a world in which we spend all our hours spinning around in self driving cars while watching, on our virtual reality glasses, an endlessly looped 3D version of Nyan Cat.
Islam tells a much more succinct and, I think, more accurate version of cat domestication. An Islamic legend holds that Noah’s ark was overrun with mice and rats. God instructed Noah to pet the nostril of a lion, whereupon the lion sneezed out two house cats. Noah’s vermin problem was solved. The story highlights the two ways in which humans actually interacted with house cats for thousands of years: as rodent control and as the occupants of ships.
In my talk I’ll discuss what we know about early cat domestication in the Fertile Crescent (not much, but cat domestication predates Egyptian civilization by several thousand years). Then I’ll show how our feline grain guardians became ship’s cats and spread all around the world. Lastly, I’ll take a detour into the lives of famous distillery cats.
Hope to see you at the Bread Fest!