In Ancient Kazakhstan, Nomadic Herders Kept Their Toothless Pet Cat Alive

An assessment of the 1,000-year-old feline’s bones suggest it wouldn’t have been able to survive without human care

Archaeologists unearthed the nearly complete cat skeleton at the ancient settlement of Dhzankent in Kazakhstan. Ashleigh Haruda / Uni Halle

A 1,000-year-old cat skeleton found along the Silk Road in Kazakhstan likely belonged to a pet cared for by nomadic herders who typically carried only the barest essentials, according to new research. Per the paper, the find is indicative of a broader shift toward urban settlement in the region around the turn of the first millennium A.D.

Archaeologists unearthed the feline’s almost intact skeleton while excavating the southern city of Dzhankent, which was once home to the Oghuz people, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo.

“The Oghuz … were a medieval Turkic people that lived in the Central Asian steppes of modern-day Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and parts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in the medieval period,” lead author Ashleigh Haruda, a zooarchaeologist at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, tells Gizmodo. “We know that they were nomadic and relied upon large herds of sheep, goats, cattle, and horses for their economy—similar to the ways that people had been living on the steppe for thousands of years before that.”

The cat’s remains show signs of healed broken leg bones and lost teeth, leading the researchers to suggest the animal would have required human care to survive, reports Ruth Schuster for Haaretz.

According to the study, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, the cat remained well-fed despite these ailments; it enjoyed a diet of soft, high-protein foods including fish and grains such as millet.

cat skeleton
Stable isotope analysis of the cat's skeleton showed the animal's diet was high in protein. DNA analysis revealed it was likely a male domesticated cat. Ashleigh Haruda / Uni Halle

The researchers used radiocarbon analysis to date the cat’s bones to between 775 and 940 A.D. By extracting and analyzing DNA from the skeleton, they were able to determine that the specimen was an adult male likely descended from a population of Middle Eastern domestic cats.

“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,” says Haruda to Gizmodo. “The most informative for us was the loss of the teeth. We could see that it had lost its canines and some of its other teeth completely and that the tooth roots had healed over. The loss of these teeth would have made it difficult for the cat to hunt successfully.”

As Haaretz notes, the skeleton’s relatively intact condition further suggests it was deliberately buried rather than left to decompose in the open.

“The Oghuz were people who only kept animals when they were essential to their lives,” explains Haruda in a statement. “Dogs, for example, can watch over the herd. They had no obvious use for cats back then.”

Speaking with Gizmodo, the zooarchaeologist adds that the Oghuz were pastoralists who primarily relied on livestock for food. Unlike agrarian societies, they would not have had large stores of grain in need of protection from rodents.

The researchers write that the presence of a non-utilitarian animal like this toothless cat is indicative of the broader cultural, social and economic changes that accompanied urbanization in the early medieval period. The pet cat may also speak to the exchange of goods and culture that took place along the historic trade route.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.