PREHISTORIC CAT LOVERS

Among the many accomplishments of ancient Egypt, the domestication of cats surely ranks as one of the most important--at least to cat lovers. These slinky little predators came in handy for controlling the mice and rats that ravaged grain stores, but they also stole Egyptian hearts. Often, when a beloved cat died, it was mummified and interred on temple grounds. Grief-stricken owners shaved off their eyebrows and left small bowls of milk and toys at the grave so the cat could drink and play in the other world. To this day, the cats of Cairo are many and adored.

New archeological findings now suggest that the Egyptians weren't the original cat tamers after all. For at least 4,000 years before Egyptians built temples along the Nile, primitive agricultural tribes had made felines not only pets but also, possibly, objects of reverence. In last week's Science, researchers described a complete cat skeleton found near the grave of a human in a Neolithic village on the island of Cyprus. About 9,500 years old, the skeleton, they say, shows all the signs of having had a burial with some religious significance: the animal had been placed in its own small pit, intact, with no sign of having been mauled by a predator--or butchered. A statue of a cat similar to stone and clay figurines found at sites in Syria, Turkey and Israel also turned up in the village.

It's unclear what prompted these Neolithic farmers to domesticate cats rather than eat them. The farmers probably came to Cyprus from Turkey and Syria seeking fresh land. They built round houses of mud, buried their dead beneath the floor, herded sheep and goats, and planted grains, all practices imported from the Continent. They also brought cats, which aren't native to the island.

The measurements of the skeleton found at the village suggest a type of African wildcat known as a Felis silvestris lybica. It may have looked like a tabby, with a striped brownish or sandy-yellow coat and a ringed tail. Its face and teeth were bigger than those of the modern domestic cat, Felis catus, and its limbs were longer. The skeleton belonged to an eight-month-old, probably a tom, so it may have been killed intentionally, to be buried along with its owner.

The cat was clearly important, as was its owner: the grave contained polished stone, axes, ocher and flint tools--an abundance of objects unmatched by any other grave of that time in Cyprus. "The rich offerings suggest a special social status and, consequently, special relationships with the animals," says the study's coauthor, Jean-Denis Vigne, research director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. It's impossible to tell much more about cat-people relationships in Neolithic times, but it's hard to imagine that it didn't involve a whole lot of petting.